Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, school kids across the country have suffered—not much from the disease itself, but from three school years that have been interrupted by pandemic mitigation measures. Though in-person public schools have suffered, home-based educational alternatives have thrived.
The families of nearly 2.6 million kids have turned to homeschooling since the pandemic began. The homeschooler population is almost double what it was before the pandemic, with 11 percent of American households now homeschooling their kids. Charter school enrollment also boomed, and home-based virtual institutions drove much of that growth in many states.
Long before the pandemic, millions of students were completing their education at home. I became one of them in 2005. From kindergarten through 10th grade, I attended a virtual charter school in Pennsylvania. I completed readings, assignments, and exams with the help of my mother at first, and independently later on. After a final two years as a traditionally homeschooled student in Utah, I finished high school having never set foot in a brick-and-mortar school.
This educational journey was far less common in the pre-pandemic years, partly due to strict regulation of alternative schooling and partly due to the perception that these options were inferior to public brick-and-mortar education. But now that an entire nation’s worth of students has been forced to experience nontraditional education, families and lawmakers are beginning to see the benefits that have always existed outside the traditional public school system.
The journey to acceptance has been a lengthy one. Homeschooling was once extremely rare, and not even legal in all 50 states until 1993.
After legalizing the practice, states enacted their own regulations for home-based education. By 2015, more than half required education in certain subjects. Twenty-three states had attendance requirements, while 13 required homeschooling parents to have certain qualifications. Kids in 24 states weren’t legally permitted to participate in extracurricular activities at their local public schools or attend those schools part time. Others required (and still require) annual achievement tests, portfolio reviews from school system representatives, and detailed attendance records. New York, which has some of the strictest homeschooling laws, dictates that a “home instruction program will be put on probation and the parent must submit a remediation plan” if “a child’s annual assessment does not comply” with state regulations.
Even so, at times different states have sought greater involvement in how parents teach their children. An unsuccessful 2004 bill in Montana would’ve banned parents from homeschooling kids with developmental disabilities. In March 2008, California ruled that parents without teaching credentials couldn’t educate their kids at home. Though reversed a few months later, the ruling put the parents of an estimated 166,000 children at risk of prosecution (as their children would have been deemed truants). Virtual home-based programs have been under fire since their launch, too—including in my home state of Pennsylvania, where a state representative in 2019 introduced a bill that would’ve required all cyber charter schools to cease operations.
But perceptions changed when COVID-19 hit and school districts sent kids home. Parents began to realize that home education is often the right fit for kids with special needs and disabilities, those who have concerns about bullying or systemic racism, or those who take issue with one-size-fits-all instruction. (Not to mention the extreme learning loss caused by pandemic-era schooling.) In June 2021, the Department of Education reported that public school enrollment “fell by its largest margin in at least two decades.” Public schools lost 1.4 million students.
Every student, to some degree, experienced home-based education—and the ones who stuck with it didn’t always fit the stereotypical mold of homeschooled students. Between April and October 2020, the percentage of black families homeschooling their kids had jumped from 3 percent to 16 percent. The percentage of homeschooling Hispanic families nearly doubled.
Families are voting with their feet, and lawmakers are paying attention. Last April, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that at least 19 state legislatures saw bills that would roll back homeschooling regulations. Nearly half of all states had considered legislation that would launch or broaden education savings account programs, through which parents may withdraw kids from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds to use on alternative programs. Colorado, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey had all seen legislation introduced on tax credits for homeschooling families. Lawmakers in other states have put forth bills that would allow homeschoolers to participate in local public schools’ athletic programs and extracurricular activities, take Advanced Placement and college entrance exams at district brick-and-mortar schools, and access scholarship programs at in-state colleges.
These reforms are overdue and could tip the scales for families considering home-based education. Homeschooling made me an entrepreneurial learner and enabled me to pursue educational opportunities outside the four walls of a classroom. I scored well on standardized tests and was accepted to most of the four-year universities I applied to. I graduated college summa cum laude, even though I entered with no high school diploma. Lawmakers should make that path more accessible, not less.
I’m not an anomaly, despite skeptics like Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet claiming that “we have zero evidence that, on average, homeschooled students are doing well.” Students educated at home “typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests,” according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Over three-quarters of peer-reviewed studies on academic outcomes show that homeschooled students “perform statistically significantly better than those in institutional schools.” Recognizing their unique backgrounds, many top U.S. universities actively recruit homeschoolers—including Harvard.
The U.S. became a nation of involuntary home-learners during the pandemic. Predictably, this approach didn’t suit everyone—homeschooling never has. But more families than ever before have seen the benefits of alternative, home-based education. Once-controversial instructional methods are finally entering the mainstream.