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Do-it-yourself education is on the rise

The number of homeschooled children is growing. Will that inspire innovations in traditional schools — or undermine their communal purpose?

Kerry Higdon gives her son Kol, 10, a math lesson in their home in Edinburg, Va., in September.RICH COOLEY/Associated Press

Chemay Morales-James founded the homeschooling collective My Reflection Matters in 2016, to provide resources and connections for parents raising children of color, like her two biracial sons. Initially, the Connecticut mom kept her organization small and local, but that changed during the pandemic, when public schools across the country closed their doors and held classes online.

“We had an influx of families,” says Morales-James. “They saw things they didn’t like over Zoom. They felt the education was cookie-cutter, making everyone fit into this box, whether it’s going to work for you or not. The camera revealed a lot, from racial nuances — how Black and brown children are policed — to just the lack of creativity.”

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During the pandemic, My Reflection Matters grew from 300 to more than 900 members, numbers that are consistent with a broader trend. The latest US Census survey of households with school-aged children, published in March, found that the proportion who homeschooled rose from about 3.3 percent before the pandemic to 5.4 percent in the spring of 2020 and again to 11.1 percent by the fall of 2020. (The survey question clarified that respondents were not confusing homeschooling with virtual instruction through a traditional public or private school.) The increase was especially dramatic for Black families, among whom homeschooling jumped from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent between spring and fall. Meanwhile, public school enrollment nationwide fell by 3 percent for the 2020-21 school year — the steepest decline since World War II — as some 1.5 million students left for homeschooling or private schools or simply dropped out.

Nationwide figures for the current school year are not yet available, but this month National Public Radio compiled data from 600 districts across the country and found that most recorded fall 2021 head counts even lower than last year’s. And while the census has yet to publish new data, homeschooling rates also seem to have stayed higher than they were before the pandemic. “It’s difficult to define the exact number of homeschoolers,” says Michael McShane, a researcher with the school choice advocacy group EdChoice, which found that 9 percent of a representative sample of American families planned to educate their children at home during the 2021-22 school year. “But by all measures it looks like the pandemic has caused a sharp increase.”

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Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. Pandemic-related school closures plunged families into chaos, and although nearly all US public schools reopened in person this fall, classes are still being canceled on short notice for reasons that include insufficient staff, student misbehavior, threats of violence, COVID outbreaks, and mental health respite. Once federal pandemic relief funds run out, the effect of falling enrollment will be felt in school budgets, likely leading to further disruptions. And should these trends prove durable, the consequences could be serious not only for our schools but for American democracy itself.

Our education system never worked perfectly. African-American, Latino, and Indigenous children have long been particularly ill-served. Still, in a fragmented society where common cultural touch points are increasingly rare, school has always, for better or worse, forced young people to mix with others who have different points of view. Historically, it has also been a place where we expose the next generation to society’s broader values — even if the precise nature of those values is never quite settled. So what happens when more and more parents opt their children out of a communal education?

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Gone for good?

“I got into this because I did not have a good experience at school, and then I saw my kids struggling,” says Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, an advocacy group focused on pressuring public schools to better meet families’ needs, especially those from poor and minority communities. “We have created a public education system that’s really addicted to the status quo.”

The National Parents Union receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation and other philanthropies that have historically supported school choice, including charter schools and vouchers. During the pandemic, it channeled $700,000 into direct grants for technology, training, and supplies for homeschooling families, cooperatives, and learning pods, in which families pool resources to hire a private teacher. Many of these parents saw the pandemic as an opportunity to take a step they had been contemplating for a while.

“They were already concerned about their children’s education,” says Rodrigues. “They were worried about bullying, or racism. Now they have experienced self-determination, they’ve seen that they can do it on their own, and they’re voting with their feet. If you think that you can do it better, if you have that option, you’re going to take it.”

Keri Rodrigues of Somerville is president of the National Parents Union.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Rodrigues, who lives in Somerville and sends her own five sons to public and parochial schools, believes there will always be a place for traditional schools, if only because parents need child care. But she also argues that more families going their own way will put pressure on public schools to better meet the needs of the children who remain. That idea has been at the heart of education reform efforts for decades, and there is some evidence that competition can increase test scores at public schools.

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If the current crisis in education offers an opportunity for innovation, some are already seizing it. Newton-based KaiPod Learning is a startup that provides physical space and learning coaches for small groups of children who are taking online classes, a scheme that provides some of the socialization and adult supervision of traditional schools while letting students work at their own pace. Another company, Prenda, offers training and support to help parents set up “microschools” in homes or community centers — more than 400 nationwide by the fall of 2020. (With plans to expand further, it’s currently working with the Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator.)

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based think tank, has been researching the ways families and schools adapted to disruptions during the pandemic. She sees homeschooling and learning pods as a potential “living room laboratory” for education in general, encouraging not only tech startups but also traditional schools to experiment. That’s already happening in districts like Edgecombe County Public Schools, in North Carolina, where — inspired by pods the district ran to facilitate virtual classes during the pandemic — a new “Hub and Spoke” program lets students spend half their time in core classes at traditional schools and then join interest-based small groups or study one on one with learning coaches. High schoolers can even leave campus entirely to work at internships for school credit.

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“In general, our systems are not set up for this,” Lake acknowledges. “But is it possible? We just have to start thinking more creatively about staffing, seat time requirements, and schedules.” Whether families who left public schools return, she says, “will depend on whether public education takes these families’ and students’ concerns seriously and responds.”

The homeschooling trend might push schools to try new things, but some argue that it also comes with serious hazards. Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School who studies child welfare, supports “a presumptive ban on homeschooling” with exceptions only for parents who can demonstrate a legitimate need. At present, few US states have testing requirements, teacher certification, or even required subjects for homeschoolers. Bartholet credits the lack of oversight to a long-running lobbying campaign that Christian conservatives launched in the wake of mid-20th century efforts to desegregate and remove religion from public schools.

Mainstream conservatives still hope to influence public school curriculum (witness the furious claims around critical race theory). But homeschooling helps parents on the far right avoid exposing their children to ideas like gay rights or equality on the basis of race and sex, about which the majority of Americans now generally agree. Some use textbooks, for example, that contain revisionist history in which slavery was merely “black immigration” and white Southerners formed the Ku Klux Klan “to protect . . . their society from anarchy.”

“The state makes mistakes too,” Bartholet says, “but I don’t think that means that we should just abandon the idea that it has a right and an obligation to educate children about the nature of the larger society and its values.”

Judging by recent statistics, homeschooling as primarily the domain of conservative white evangelicals may be an outdated idea. But homeschooling families who worry public schools aren’t serving Black and brown children well may be driven by ideology, too. Ethnographic research by University of Georgia professor Cheryl Fields-Smith, for example, has found that Black families who homeschool often see it as “a vehicle of resistance to institutionalized racism.”

A Black or Latino parent who joins My Reflection Matters, gaining access to an online community of the like-minded — along with such curricular products as “The ABCs of the Black Panther Party” — is very different from one who teaches her daughters that they must submit to the men in their lives or that the Civil War was a fight over states’ rights. Both families, however, see public schools as standing in the way of efforts to instill their own values in their children. As a heated debate over how to teach about racism, gender, and American history plays out nationwide, there are families on both sides who have left the conversation.

That instinct is understandable, given that the national conversation can feel increasingly toxic and unproductive. Parents with financial means, after all, have always had alternatives — although as with public school, attending even the toniest private school involves learning alongside others with whom one might not have chosen to spend time. But if we normalize and broaden homeschooling, are we tacitly accepting a future in which Americans remain isolated within their political or identity-based groups and where fewer children spend time learning to live with others who may not share their points of view?

After nearly two years of education disrupted by a pandemic, following decades of racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, it makes sense that many parents would seek alternatives to public school. Perhaps they are correct that it’s incumbent upon schools themselves to lure families back by trying harder to meet the needs of every child. But what’s clear is that in a pluralistic, democratic society, there’s a lot at stake if people give up on communal public education.

Amy Crawford is a freelance journalist in Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.