Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics
newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Leave your feedback
Since the start of the pandemic, homeschooling has been on the rise with an estimated 30% increase in enrollment since the beginning of the 2019 school year. While the total number of homeschooled families remains relatively modest, its rise has impacted traditional school enrollment and the way we view education. William Brangham reports.
Since the start of the pandemic, homeschooling has been on the rise, with an estimated 30 percent increase in homeschool enrollment since the beginning of the 2019 school year.
While the total number of homeschool families remains relatively modest, its rise has impacted traditional school enrollment and, as William Brangham reports, the way we view education.
I think he's going to come. Yes, look at him.
Think of it as a school without walls.
Oh, look at that one flying.
Or even a roof, for that matter.
This group of kids in a park about an hour west of Detroit, Michigan, aren't on a field trip. This is just another day of homeschooling.
Kelly Konieczki, Homeschool Parent:
We usually pick a different park every week to visit with the kids. And we just — there's no agenda. We just go out on the trails and explore. You can't get those experiences from a textbook.
Kelly Konieczki and her 12-year-old daughter, Matilda, took the leap into homeschooling during the pandemic. Being at home allowed them to reflect on their lives and Matilda's public school education.
We were going to school. We were shuffling back and forth. It's this hustle-and-bustle kind of thing. And when all of that all of a sudden just stopped, I was like, wait a minute. The pandemic taught a lot of people about what life could and should be like.
And I just wanted to continue with that. I said, well, if there was ever a time to try homeschooling, it's now, because things are crazy.
Robin Lake, Director, Center on Reinventing Public Education: We have been shocking the homeschool movement for a while, and we were noticing an uptake, a surge in homeschooling before the pandemic. And during the pandemic, the numbers really shot up.
Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research and policy center.
What surprised me was how many said, hey, let's use this opportunity to try something different. Maybe we can do better.
I do think that there are a number of homeschool families that really want to flip how education works. So they're not just running away from something. They're trying to do something really different.
The Konieczkis use an approach known as unschooling.
Unschooling is really just learning through living. It's respecting your child as an individual and supporting them, letting them lead.
Matilda Konieczki, Homeschool Student:
He's barking because it's mating season, and he thinks he wants to mate, but…
For Matilda, this means she can take deep dives into her real interests, like veterinary medicine, which she explores by caring for the many pets in her home and shadowing a veterinary technician at an animal shelter.
It still feels a little weird, but I have gotten used to it at this point. It's such a healthier way to learn, in my opinion.
While homeschooling is clearly working for families like the Konieczkis, experts who study this field say that homeschools, just like traditional schools, can vary widely in the quality of education they provide.
Dr. Elizabeth Bartholet, Harvard University:
Even though we think of ourselves as a society that requires that children be educated, if parents want to, they can simply keep their kids at home, not educate them, or educate them in whatever way they choose, and there's no limit.
Dr. Elizabeth Bartholet is a child welfare expert and law professor at Harvard University. She says the laws governing homeschools vary from state to state, but rarely do they provide meaningful oversight.
Dr. Elizabeth Bartholet:
In the United States, there's essentially no effective regulation. And I think that's true in all 50 states.
In loosely regulated states, like Texas, Michigan and Illinois, parents are not even legally required to notify their school district before homeschooling. More strictly regulated states, like Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, require parents to turn in curriculums and assessments.
But, says Bartholet, enforcement is lacking.
There are some states that, on paper, look better than others. But even the ones that look on paper as if they have some requirements of what regulation there is isn't enforced.
She says this means authorities aren't able to really see what the lives of homeschooled children look like, from the quality of education they receive to their mental or physical health.
The requirement that all kids go to school has been an enormous piece of our protective system for children, so protecting them against abuse and neglect. And the largest group of reporters for many years now has been teachers and other school personnel.
But, in Robin Lake's research, she says homeschooling parents bristle at those concerns, saying they know what's best for their kids.
Parents who are homeschooling would tell you, look, we ran away from something that wasn't working. Don't rebuild it. Give us the space to do what we need to do for our kids.
Natalie Thomas, Homeschool Parent:
I don't want anybody to tell me that my daughter is only able to do this book at this time. Then she's not really homeschooling, is she?
Navy veteran Natalie Thomas says she started homeschooling early in the pandemic, when her older daughter's Maryland school went virtual.
Every time she would get on the computer, I would say, what are you doing? And she's like, I don't know. I was drawing a picture. I was making a flower. So I'm like, OK, she's not getting anything from this. So we started homeschooling.
With her direction, Thomas says her daughter, Sariah (ph), now 8, learns the fundamentals, but also has the flexibility to explore her interests.
Sariah, Homeschool Student:
This is when I'm going to make a shop that's called Sariah's Shop.
That makes sense, because you're Sariah.
She drew this whole vision board of the salon that she's going to create. And I have already looked into that. Like, in Maryland, you can have your cosmetology license at 16. Homeschooling will allow her to be on that track.
What is this?
Samia, Homeschool Student:
At a time when school curriculums are the center of a passionate national debate, Thomas says she's able to teach Sariah and her younger sister, 4-year-old Samia (ph), things like Black history more fully.
A lot of schools and a lot of states are starting to really take out history. And I feel like you can't really talk about American history unless you talk about the importance that African Americans, Latin Americans — there's no American history without us.
In 2020, the number of Black homeschooling families shot up, diversifying a movement many think of as being white, Christian and conservative.
What's the hardest part of all of this for you?
I think, a lot of times, it's the naysayers.
Is that right, the outside world?
Mm-hmm. I think that — I think that may be the hardest.
What we do in here, it works for us and works for my kids. They're learning and they're thriving.
Public schools across the country have lost roughly 1.2 million students since 2020, in part due to homeschooling, leaving the schools still reeling from the pandemic with even smaller budgets.
It's a troubling shift, says Elizabeth Bartholet, because free public education was created to benefit not just children, but society as a whole.
There was some way of trying to ensure that all children raised in the larger society had some sense of that larger society's values, its democratic system, core values like anti-racism, anti-sexism, and just the right of people to take charge of their own lives.
Whatever the impact, Robin Lake says homeschooling has staying power.
In talking to some families during the pandemic, I asked them, do you think you will stay with us? And many of them said yes. And I think that the reason, in part, was, they realize that it's easier than they thought.
And now that many parents have done it successfully, they feel like OK, I have got this. I want to stick with it.
Back in Michigan, Kelly Konieczki plans to do just that.
I have seen her grow and flourish and just thrive in this environment. That's why we have decided to continue.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.
Watch the Full Episode
William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Support Provided By: