By JOHN HOOD
RALEIGH — North Carolina is already the homeschooling capital of the United States. Now the attraction of this education option is soaring higher than ever — thanks not to the actions of its proponents but to the antics of its opponents.
According to data compiled by the organization EdChoice.org, about 7.6% of elementary and secondary students in North Carolina were educated at home during the 2019-20 school year, almost always by a parent. No other state comes close. The next-highest rate of homeschooling was Arkansas’s 3.6%.
Why is homeschooling such a popular alternative in our state? I think it is a combination of public policy and momentum. Decades ago, a state court case confirmed the right of North Carolinians to educate their children as they saw fit, including at home, rather than being subject to egregious coercion by the state. Since then, as the ranks of homeschooling parents grew and diversified — encompassing rural evangelicals, urban progressives, suburban strivers, and a broad range of personal values and academic preferences — there were support networks and other resources available for just about any North Carolinian who might be inclined to try it.
Information technology and internet access have certainly played roles in facilitating the growth of homeschooling, in our state and elsewhere. But for most homeschooling families, computers and online offerings are only a part of their template of daily activities. They relish the personal relationship between teacher/parent and pupil/child. And they supplement home instruction with a rich diet of enrichment experiences and extracurricular activities.
Although politicians, bureaucrats, and activists occasionally raise the issue of tightening regulation, the idea rarely gets beyond the notional stage. North Carolina homeschoolers are organized, vigilant, and committed. They knew their rights and their children well. They won’t stand for it.
Since the COVID-19 crisis began in March, many homeschooling parents and advocates I know have been reporting record levels of public interest in the option — overwhelmingly positive interest, I should clarify.
In a way, you might find this fact counterintuitive, at least if you are a parent of a public-school student or know someone who is. When school districts closed down last spring and sent their students home for “distance learning,” the vast majority of families experienced some combination of disappointment, frustration, chaos, and fury. In August, school districts serving most North Carolina students decided not to reopen for in-person learning. While public schools had all summer to prepare for a fall semester of distance learning, and seem to be doing a better job than they were able to manage on short notice last spring, there remains a great deal of dissatisfaction.
So why would many parents inquire about making a switch? Because intentional homeschooling is quite different from compulsory distance-learning. In the former case, parents are in charge. They can structure lessons, assignments, and assessments around the particular needs of their children — and around their own work schedules and responsibilities.
Moreover, many parents are pursuing variations on the theme. If their children are going to be on a hybrid calendar — some days at home, other days away from home — they’d rather band together to form “pods” of homeschoolers taught by a parent with special skills or knowledge rather than subject their children to occasional, often-stressful experiences at public schools.
When Gov. Roy Cooper announced that public elementary schools could now adopt Plan A, allowing in-person learning five days a week, it was in part a response to the widespread sense that school shutdowns were infuriating parents and depriving their children of their constitutional right to the opportunity for a sound, basic education.
Still, Cooper’s longtime allies at the North Carolina Association of Educators haven’t given up. They are lobbying local districts intensively not to reopen schools. I can understand the health concerns of teachers, especially older ones with preexisting risk factors. But there are better ways to accommodate their needs than locking students out of schools.
If NCAE succeeds, one consequence will be another big jump in homeschooling this year. Irony abounds.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.