by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Homeschool enrollment hasn’t topped the charts just yet. But at the rate it’s growing, it’s only a matter of time.
North Carolina’s homeschool enrollment continues to increase at an impressive rate. According to figures released last week by the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education, between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years there was a 4.6 percent increase in the estimated number of homeschool students. Over the last five school years, the homeschool population increased by a staggering 33 percent. An estimated 142,037 children attended homeschools last year.
All 100 counties in North Carolina have homeschool students. With an estimated enrollment of just over 13,000, Wake County boasts the largest homeschool population in the state. Tyrell County has only 42, the fewest of any county. Neither Wake nor Tyrell can match Madison, Yancey, Transylvania, and a handful of other counties that have large homeschool populations relative to the size of their county districts. For example, in 2019, Madison County had 678 homeschoolers compared to a district enrollment of around 2,200 students.
So, why is homeschooling growing? It depends on the values and circumstances of each family. Many homeschool families are dissatisfied with the academic quality or rigor of their assigned public schools. Worries about bullying, crime, drugs, or harmful social interactions with peers in public schools are common. Others want to give their children an alternative to the homogenization, regimentation, and anotherbrickinthewallism that typify modern public schooling. Of course, objections to the inculcation of secular or nontraditional values in public school curricula is one of the most prevalent motivations among homeschool families. And those who choose to integrate faith into instruction have greater access to curricula and instructional resources than ever before.
Yet, the homeschool movement is changing. A superb News & Observer profile of secular homeschooling offers some insight into those whose decision to homeschool was not motivated by their faith. Chapel Hill homeschool parent Dee Fortson, who calls herself a “secular atheist home-schooler,” chose to homeschool her academically gifted and dyslexic daughter due to dissatisfaction with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. Secular homeschool parent Christy Batts told the News & Observer that her decision to homeschool was based on “a love of learning foundation and doing that in whichever way works for our kid at the time.”
Compared to homeschool enrollment, private school enrollment hasn’t changed much. The 102,400 students that attended private schools in North Carolina last year was an increase of just over 800 students from the year before, a 0.8 percent increase. Perhaps more private school parents are making a switch to charter schools, which offer private school quality at district school prices.
The Opportunity Scholarship, Disability Grant, and Education Savings Account programs, which provide private school scholarships to low-income and special needs students, may be responsible for recent enrollment gains. The combined enrollment for the three programs increased by around 3,000 students during this period. These scholarship programs also may be among the reasons why Wake County now has the largest private school population in the state, eclipsing perennial leader Mecklenburg County.
Parents send their children to private schools for many of the same reasons as homeschool parents do. In 2017, N.C. State researchers Anna Egalite, D.T. Stallings, and Stephen Porter published a working paper that asked Opportunity Scholarship parents to explain their decision to participate in the private school choice program. Parents chose to leave the public school system for a variety of reasons. Concerns about quality, safety, and comfort were among the most cited reasons. And when asked to explain why they selected their current private school, 94 percent of parents said the educational quality was a “very important” consideration, while less than one-third said that extracurricular activities were important.
So, are homeschoolers poised to conquer North Carolina in the next decade? Not quite. But it is the second largest category of schooling in the state. In terms of total enrollment, homeschools would be the third largest school district in North Carolina, and they are quickly catching up to the second largest district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction has not published the final public school enrollment figures for the 2018-19 school year, but the latest data available show that around 80 percent of school-age children in North Carolina attend a district, regional, or Innovative School District school, 8 percent attend homeschools, and charter and private schools each enroll around 6 percent. When school choice opponents declare that charter schools and private school voucher programs are destroying district schools, remind them that districts still enroll 8 out of every ten children in North Carolina.
On the other hand, an estimated 20 percent of North Carolina families selected a home, private, or charter school in 2019. Most of them will not know those who are responsible for the creation and the preservation of those opportunities – passionate citizens, courageous legislators, and stalwart advocates from North Carolina and beyond. The John Locke Foundation is proud to be counted among them. Rock on!