Homeschooling: A Question of Definition

It’s been several weeks since I’ve written here. Finding something meaningful to say about the current “explosion” of homeschooling has eluded me. I’ve never seen more homeschooling-related articles, social media posts, and interest on a daily basis than I have during the past year. I’ve never seen more confusion, either.

We all know why, of course. Today I saw an NPR report on the numbers: “Homeschooling Doubled During the Pandemic, U.S. Census Survey Finds.” The data, as the article points out, is complicated. What counts as homeschooling? Well, says, Professor Christopher Lubienski, “It’s a question of definition.”

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

This haggling over what homeschooling is and is not has been around for a long time, long before COVID-19. Public virtual schools, introduced in the United States years ago, prompted an intense and not always friendly debate about what counts as homeschooling. The rise of learning centers, where families could enroll their children on a part-time or even full-time basis, added another dimension to the discussion, and at least in my state, led to the strange situation where one child could experience their education entirely at home via computer and still be an enrolled public school student, while another could go to a learning center all day, every day, and still be a homeschooler.

During the last year, scores of public school students have experienced virtual schooling, as COVID-19 drove schools to full or partial remote learning, still referred to as homeschooling by many people, I guess because they see the word as an accurate description of their current experience. Learning centers, meanwhile, experienced the same setbacks as brick and mortar schools and struggled to find ways to adapt and survive during the pandemic.

Why is definition important? Who cares if someone calls themselves a homeschooler? Let them have the identity they choose! These arguments were made long before COVID, and I imagine will continue to linger after the dust settles. Some families, having discovered that homeschooling works well for them, will keep homeschooling. Others will return to public or private schools with relief, but virtual and hybrid programs will likely continue to evolve, throwing yet more confusion on the definition of homeschooling.

My daughter was six in 1991 when I started homeschooling. Back then things were crystal clear. Your child was either enrolled in public or private school full time, or they were a homeschooler. It was a legal distinction, and it is precisely that legal distinction that makes it important and even necessary to define homeschooling.

Homeschooling looks very different than it used to, yet there are and will continue to be families who want to exercise their right to choose independent homeschooling, free from enrollments in hybrid programs or learning centers or virtual curricula, and free from any requirement to replicate a specific style of school or educational environment.

Any concern I have about definitions stems from wanting to ensure that the right to independently homeschool will remain for those who choose it. It’s one of the reasons I helped found Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, and the reason I continue to pay attention to the legal scene in my state. Aside from keeping clear a legal definition which reflects that homeschooling is parent/guardian directed education that does not have to replicate any particular curriculum or approach, I don’t care what any family’s individual educational choices look like. As homeschooling continues to evolve and change, my hope is that people stay curious about, open to, and accepting of the option to independently homeschool.

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