Earlier this month, J.C. Penney learned the hard way just how powerful the home-schooling movement has become. Penney's had recently started selling a T shirt that wickedly crystallized many people's assumptions about the movement: HOME SKOOLED, giggles the shirt, which also depicts a trailer home. The folks at Penney's say they meant no harm--they didn't even design the T, which had become popular in other stores first. But they yanked it from the shelves Aug. 8 after enraged missives poured in from home-schooling families, some of whom threatened a boycott.
Penney's should have known better. Over the past decade, the ranks of families home schooling have grown dramatically. According to a new federal report, at least 850,000 students were learning at home in 1999, the most recent year studied; some experts believe the figure is actually twice that. As recently as 1994, the government estimated the number at just 345,000. True, even the largest estimates still put the home schooled at only 4% of the total K-12 population--but that would mean more kids learn at home than attend all the public schools in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming combined.
While politicians from Washington on down to your school board have been warring over charter schools and vouchers in recent years, home schooling has quietly outpaced both of those more attention-getting reforms (only half a million kids are in charter schools, and just 65,000 receive vouchers). In many ways, in fact, home schooling has become a threat to the very notion of public education. In some school districts, so many parents are pulling their children out to teach them at home that the districts are bleeding millions of dollars in per-pupil funding. Aside from money, the drain of families is eroding something more precious: public confidence in the schools.
Thomas Jefferson and the other early American crusaders for public education believed the schools would help sustain democracy by bringing everyone together to share values and learn a common history. In the little red brick schoolhouse, we would pursue both "democracy in education and education in democracy," as Stanford historian David Tyack gracefully puts it. Home schooling forsakes all that by defining education not as the pursuit of an entire community but as the work of one family and its chosen circle. Which can be great. Despite some drawbacks, there are signs that home-schooling parents are doing a better job than public schools at teaching their kids. But as the number of kids learning at home grows, we should pause to wonder: Better at teaching them what? Home schooling may turn out better students, but does it create better citizens?