Discussions surrounding education have increasingly posited school choice as a solution to failing schools. Competition, the argument goes, will increase school quality overall. These discussions have often centered on the use of public funding to promote school choice in the form of charter, schools, vouchers and, more pertinently, money for homeschoolers. While there are arguments for making public funding available to homeschooled students—and ways to do so responsibly—no amount of public funding for homeschooling will make it a viable solution to failing schools, either short-term or long-term. This is especially true for impoverished families.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has consistently found that around 20% of homeschooled students are below the poverty rate, a number comparable with public school rates. However, looking at these numbers alone masks several differences in the respective populations. In 2007 the NCES found that 2.2% of students in households that made less than $20,000 were homeschooled while 3.1% of students in households that made between $20,000 and $50,000 were homeschooled, along with 4.0% of students in households that made between $50,000 and $75,000. This suggests that homeschooled students under the federal poverty line tend to be clustered closer to that line than public school students, and thus that students in extreme poverty are less likely to be homeschooled.
Families who homeschool typically give up a second income. As a result, the 20% poverty rate among homeschooled students may be more the result of originally non-poor homeschool families giving up a second income than of families already in poverty choosing to homeschool. Homeschooling is frequently not a viable option for impoverished families, which are often headed by a single working parent, or by two parents who must both work to make ends meet. Because of the intensive parenting required, homeschooling rarely takes place in single-parent households. Only 8% of homeschooled children live in a household headed by a single parent, compared with 24% of students overall.
Even when one parent can stay at home, homeschooling is not always the best option for families in poverty. Multiple studies have found that homeschooled students’ academic performance varies by the level of parental education. Homeschooled students whose parents have bachelor’s degrees tend to score very well. Students whose parents lack this qualification score less well. The 2014 HARO survey found that two-thirds of respondents homeschooled by parents without a high school degree or GED felt their homeschool upbringing had left them unprepared for the future.
Homeschooling is not a viable solution for many students living in poverty, especially those in extreme poverty. However, there are homeschooled students whose families are poor or near-poor who would benefit from access to state or federal education funds. At CRHE, we only support initiatives that provide education funding to homeschooled students if they are accompanied by reasonable accountability measures. In Alaska, most homeschool families voluntarily enroll in programs that provide them with up to $2000 in educational spending per child and require monthly teacher contact, regular progress reports, and annual testing. These programs are run by public and charter schools and often include access to resource rooms and enrichment programs, along with athletics and extracurriculars.
Programs like Alaska’s have the potential to help and support poor or near-poor homeschool families, but they are not a viable solution to greater limitations in current public school funding or policy. Policy makers should not abdicate their responsibility to provide a robust public education system by relying on the ability of some parents to take up the slack through homeschooling. Homeschooling can and does provide a useful option for some students zoned to attend schools with chronic funding or administration problems, but it is generally not an option for those most affected by failures in public education—children in extreme poverty.