The True History of Homeschooling in the United States
The homeschooling history in the United States is fascinating—full of ups and downs, contradictory efforts, and brief periods of illegality.
Keep reading to learn how long homeschooling has been around in the United States (longer than you might expect!). Also, learn why it was illegal at some point in the past and what John D. Rockefeller had to do with it.
I’ve also introduced some of the leaders of the modern homeschooling movement and its development since the 1970s.
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The Origins of Homeschooling in the United States
Homeschooling in the United States extends further even than the history of the country.
During the colonial period in America, the majority [of children] were mainly home educated, receiving instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion.
The term homeschooling didn’t exist back then, but the practice existed. Instead, people used the term “domestic education,” and researchers found it common throughout the 1600s and 1700s.
Why Was Homeschooling Illegal?
During the 19th century, the newly independent American states built public schools and developed their public education system. Then, in 1852 Massachusetts passed the first truancy laws that made attendance at public schools compulsory.
Every state followed suit, and in 1917, Mississippi became the last state to enact a truancy law.
These laws made, in principle, homeschooling illegal.
If parents failed to send their children to public schools, they could be fined and, in some cases, even lose custody of their kids.
The General Education Board and John D. Rockefeller
At the beginning of the 20th century, John D. Rockefeller funded the General Education Board (GEB) with millions of dollars. The mission of the GEB was to foster “the promotion of education within the United States of America, without distinction of race, sex, or creed.”
The work of the GEB created the first impetus toward building a national public school system. But unfortunately, it also resulted in homeschooling becoming even more of an afterthought—and it stayed like that for about half a century.
When Did the “Modern Homeschooling Movement” Begin?
It is widely accepted that the modern homeschool movement began in the 1970s. However, the effectiveness of public schools started to be questioned during the 1950s and 1960s.
In the 1960s, Paul Goodman published “Compulsory Miseducation,” highlighting the “inadequacies of public education.” Meanwhile, fifth-grade teacher John Holt published “How Children Fail” about “the faults of the public education system.”
People consider these two texts the earliest documentations of homeschooling in the U.S.
By the 1970s, Holt started calling parents to “liberate their children from formal education” and follow a method today we know as “unschooling.” Holt also started a newsletter called “Growing Without Schooling,” which became one of the main motors behind the modern homeschooling movement.
In 1981, Raymond and Dorothy Moore published “Home Grown Kids,” a seminal text about the modern homeschooling movement. In a nutshell, this book warned people about how public schooling could harm a child’s development.
The Amish Case That Changed Homeschooling Forever
In 1972, the Supreme Court heard a case known as Wisconsin v. Yoder. The highest court in the U.S. granted that “Amish parents [had] the right to educate their children at home after eighth grade.”
This decision was a huge win for the homeschooling movement, and during the 1970s, most legal cases were decided in favor of the parents.
Notwithstanding these “legal victories” and easing some legal restrictions, homeschooling didn’t become legal in all 50 states until 1992. However, it’s estimated that by 1985, around 200,000 families in the United States were homeschooling their children.
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The Role of the Home School Legal Defense Association
In 1983, Michael Farris founded the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). Its mission was to make homeschooling possible and to “tirelessly advocate for the right to homeschool—in courts, legislatures, and anywhere else we can make ourselves heard.”
Farris joined forces with other influential leaders of the homeschool movement, such as Sue Welch and Greg Harris. These connections were so successful that they positioned the HSLDA as “the nerve center of a national movement infrastructure.”
The Role of the National Home Education Research Institute
In the 1990s, the homeschooling movement had gained much momentum, and most states were passing or discussing bills making homeschooling legal.
This environment was possible thanks to the work of several organizations and institutions.
In 1990, Brian Ray founded the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) to “research, study, and understand those who teach their children at home.”
In other words, NHERI specializes in “homeschool research, facts, statistics, scholarly articles, and information.” They also provide the homeschooling movement with a constant source of serious research and scholarly statistics.
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How Has Homeschooling Changed Between the 1970s and Today?
By 1992, every state had passed bills that made homeschooling legal. One year later, President Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sent the number of homeschooling students up to 750,000 by 1995.
Ever since, homeschooling has been on the rise.
Now more accepted and popular than ever before. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2020 and 2021, over “11% of families were homeschooling.”
It’s fair to say that homeschooling has completely changed since the 1970s.
First and foremost, homeschooling is now a legal practice in every state in America. Second, we must acknowledge the role played by the advent of the internet and how technology has opened many new paths for those pursuing a homeschool education.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic showed the benefits of homeschooling to a lot of families.
Families that perhaps had never before considered homeschooling a possibility now found it an exciting option for their children’s education.
The Future of Homeschooling
The history of homeschooling in the United States has seen many ups and downs over the last four centuries. These days, homeschooling is experiencing a boom that has inspired some experts to call it “the future of education.”
What’s true is that homeschooling is a much more complete option to educate your children than ever before. Nowadays, a quarter of homeschool students take online courses through a public school, while others attend full-time virtual schools.
These types of “hybrid education,” where homeschooling is supported and enhanced by public and private schools, may be the path for the future of homeschooling.
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