Pandemic Spurs Huge Homeschooling Boom — But Will it Last?
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The number of home schools and home-schooled students in North Carolina has seen a significant increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparing the 2019-20 academic year to the current one, the number of home schools rose from 94,863 to 112,614, an 18.7% surge. Regarding student enrollment, estimates suggest an increase from 149,173 to 179,900, which represents a nearly 21% change. However, these figures are not exact due to the state’s lack of accurate information on the number of students in home schools. Nonetheless, the growth in students between last year and this year is substantial. Over the span of 2016 to 2021, home schools have expanded by 39% and the number of students has grown by 41%.
For data broken down by county, including specific numbers, refer to this link.
Now, the question arises: what are the reasons behind this growth, and what implications does it have for education in North Carolina?
Exploring the issue further, it is evident that the percentage of students enrolled in public schools has been declining for several years. For every academic year between 2016-17 and 2019-20, the number of students served by public schools has consistently decreased. In 2016-17, enrollment amounted to 1,486,448 whereas by 2019-20, it had dropped to 1,458,814.
In comparison, during the second month of the 2020-21 school year, there were 63,000 fewer students enrolled compared to the previous year. This accounts for a 4.4% decrease, as reported by Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The annual charter school report for this year reveals an enrollment of 126,165 students in such schools as of October 1, 2020, compared to "over 117,000" in 2019-20. Furthermore, the number of charter schools in the state has nearly doubled since the removal of the 100-school cap on charters in 2011.
Charter schools, even though they are considered public schools, differ from school district-run institutions. Instead, they are operated by for-profit or nonprofit organizations, granting them certain flexibilities in adhering to rules and requirements that traditional public schools must follow.
According to the state Division of Non-Public Education, private school enrollment for this academic year stands at 107,341, an increase from the previous year’s 103,959. Private schools, too, typically witness year-after-year growth in enrollment.
Now, with an estimated 179,900 students enrolled in home schools this year, they have become the second-most popular educational choice in the state, trailing behind traditional public schools.
From the 2016-17 to 2017-18 academic year, the number of home schools increased by 7% from 80,973 to 86,753, while enrollment rose by approximately 6% from 127,847 to 135,749.
Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, the number of home schools grew by 3,935, and enrollment increased by 6,288. This translates to an approximate 4.5% increase in both cases.
Moving to the period from 2018-19 to 2019-20, the number of home schools rose by 4,175, and enrollment grew by 7,136. These figures represent a 4.6% and 5% increase, respectively.
To visualize the growth trend since the 2000-01 school year, refer to the provided chart.
A Superintendent’s Perspective
Travis Reeves, Superintendent of Surry County Schools, acknowledged the phenomenon of students shifting from traditional public schools to home schools, a trend that has been observed by superintendents throughout the state. Reeves emphasized that school systems need to introspect and understand the reasons behind this shift, as well as evaluate the market.
In Surry County Schools, Reeves and his team took proactive steps to engage with home school families and attended home school fairs to gain insights into their motives and educational preferences. In February 2020, before the pandemic, the local board of education altered certain policies to establish partnerships with home schools.
Consequently, home-schooled students in the Surry area can now attend Surry County Schools and take classes there. These students become dual-enrolled in their home school and the school district. Reeves expressed confidence that once these students become familiar with the teachers and principals, they will appreciate what Surry County Schools has to offer.
During the pandemic, the district introduced an online magnet school that stands apart from the virtual academies created by many other districts. The Surry Online Magnet School, which commenced in August, operates as a true online school with its own dedicated principals and teachers. Its inaugural graduation took place in May.
Upon the school’s opening, there was significant interest from homeschooled students, resulting in many of them enrolling in the school. Superintendent Reeves suggested that if this choice was not available, an additional 210 students may have opted for homeschooling.
However, Reeves acknowledged that some students also returned to homeschooling. In many instances, they sought to avoid the testing, accountability, and attendance obligations imposed by traditional schools. Reeves noted that some families found these requirements to be overwhelming.
Reeves acknowledged the growth of the school choice movement in the state. While he recognized the value of options such as magnet schools, online schools, and others, he emphasized that traditional public schools also provide choices to students and families. He believed that offering families this variety of options was crucial to the success of public education.
Reeves expressed concern about the loss of a sense of community and belonging that students experience in traditional public schools. He regarded this feeling of togetherness and unity as a fundamental aspect of democracy.
The reasons behind the surge in homeschool numbers during the pandemic are widely understood. However, questions arise about the steady growth observed prior to the pandemic. Will this expansion level off in the future, or has the pandemic triggered a more significant transformation in homeschooling?
Various factors contribute to families choosing homeschooling: concerns about the perceived lack of rigor or resources in public and private schools, the availability of online options and homeschool communities, specific educational needs of children with disabilities, and personal or familial circumstances.
Then, the pandemic struck. In July 2020, interest in homeschooling reached such heights that the registration website had to be temporarily shut down. But will the substantial increase persist now that COVID-19 concerns have diminished?
Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the right-leaning John Locke Foundation, believed that many families who turned to homeschooling during the pandemic will discover it to be a viable and enjoyable option for their families.
Stoops also suggested that the best way to promote homeschooling is through personal conversations between homeschooling families and those considering it.
On the other hand, Matt Ellinwood, director of the Education and Law project at the left-leaning NC Justice Center, predicted that while some new homeschooling families may continue in the short term, the overall increase observed during the pandemic is unlikely to be permanent.
Ellinwood highlighted that for many individuals, the pandemic is far from over. Moreover, the unavailability of COVID-19 vaccinations for children under 12 adds to the uncertainty. He anticipated only a modest increase in permanent homeschool enrollments, rather than the dramatic surge witnessed during the pandemic.
He expressed concerns about the sudden rise in homeschooling this year because many families did not plan on teaching their children at home and, therefore, did not adequately prepare for an educational experience outside of traditional schools.
In North Carolina, parents have significant freedom in homeschooling their children, although the state mandates that homeschooled students take annual standardized tests in subjects like English, grammar, reading, spelling, and mathematics. While parents are not required to submit the test results or evidence of compliance, they must retain the results for at least one year in case of inspection by the state authorities (as noted by Molly Osborne, director of news and policy for EducationNC, in a 2017 article).
When considering whether an increase in the number of students being home-schooled is positive or negative, Stoops and Ellinwood offer contrasting viewpoints.
Stoops believes that the focus should not be on whether public school is better than home school. Instead, the primary concern should be meeting the needs of children. He personally sees it as a positive outcome when a student succeeds academically, and whether they are in a traditional classroom or at home is irrelevant. Stoops believes that policymakers should share this perspective.
On the other hand, Ellinwood argues that as more families choose home schooling, it diminishes the number of people who have a vested interest in public education. Since the vast majority of individuals receive their education in public schools, they want to ensure that these schools have adequate resources and programs. However, if more and more people opt out of public education, it weakens the collective support for these institutions.
The state Division of Non-Public Education utilizes a particular language to explain how they determine student estimates. They use an algorithm to account for non-reporting schools and schools with unrealistic reported numbers. The algorithm takes into consideration the average student population per school from the remaining reporting schools in a county. Enrollment by grade is also estimated by assuming that non-reporting schools have a similar grade distribution to the reporting schools in that county.
In North Carolina, like 42 other states, home schools are required to register with the Division of Non-Public Education. Parents must provide basic information about the school and its administrators, such as the name, address, owner, and chief administrator. However, they are not obligated to disclose the names, ages, or specific number of home-schooled students. This is why the figures for home-schooled students in the state are only estimations and not precise counts.
This article was originally published on EdNC.org.
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