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The headline —-“Fewer home-school families cite religion as their main motivation”—-caught my eye. Is it really true that religious families comprise a smaller proportion of the homeschooling community than in the past?

The article certainly makes that claim, even if it doesn’t quite support the bold assertion of the person who wrote the headline. Consider the following two statements.

According to the federally funded National Center for Education Statistics , the share of parents who cited religious or moral instruction” as their primary motivation for home-schooling has dropped from 36 percent in 2007 to just 21 percent during the 2011-12 school year.

[John] Edelson [founder and president of Time4Learning] said the number of home-school families who do so for religious reasons has not decreased, but the percentage of those who list it as a first priority has dropped as other parents join the home-schooling community for different reasons.

But I’m disinclined simply to quibble about a headline that confuses a smaller proportion with smaller numbers. The more interesting question concerns the “diversification” of the homeschooling community, and the implication that a successful reform of public schools might bring a significant proportion of homeschoolers back “home” to the schools they left. Consider, in this connection, the article’s concluding paragraphs:
Edelson said there are generally three types of home-schoolers: those who do so for religious reasons; the “free spirits” who oppose a regimented public school system; and the “accidental home-schooler” who find their children do not thrive in a traditional school environment.

“Part of it is driven because they’re disappointed in the schools,” Edelson said. “If we had better schools, if the schools weren’t so confused and having trouble with testing and having trouble with budgets—-that’s one of the things that’s fueling the home-school movement.”

A closer look at the data and the larger historical context makes me hesitant to draw any big conclusions about trends in homeschooling. To begin with, the federal government gives us four data points—-surveys in 1999 , 2003 , 2007 , and 2011 . Only in 2007 did religious reasons for homeschooling command the highest proportion as the “most important.” In 1999 and 2003, religious considerations were the second most frequently cited reason for homeschooling. (I hesitate to make much of the 1999 data for purposes of comparison, because the options offered to parents in the survey were different, and there appears not to have been any question about what the most important factor was.) It may be, in other words, that 2007 was more like a blip and that 2011 represents a return to a norm, rather than an indicator of a trend.

But, again, I’m not sure how much I want to make of parents’ answers to this particular question. There’s also this bit of information that we have from 2003, 2007, and 2011. Parents were offered a list of reasons for homeschooling and permitted to choose as many as they wanted. In 2003, the top three were “concern about environment” (e.g., peer culture), providing religious or moral instruction, and dissatisfaction with academic instruction, at 85.4 percent, 72.3 percent, and 68.2 percent, respectively. In 2007, the rank order was identical, though the percentages were different (88 percent, 83 percent, and 73 percent). In 2011, environment came in first at 91 percent, followed by moral instruction (77 percent), academic dissatisfaction (74 percent), and (only then) religious instruction at 64 percent. This last number seems like a quite precipitous drop-off from previous years until one considers that the other surveys combined the religious and moral instruction categories. Combining the 2011 numbers for the sake of comparison, we get a consistency in rank and a rough comparability in magnitude over the last three surveys. It may be that not all that much has changed, in other words.

But let me move away from the numbers to make what I hope is a larger point. When they think about homeschooling, parents contemplate a number of different factors. They may not clearly distinguish school environment from moral and religious considerations, or, to put it another way, their evaluation of school environment may be influenced by moral and religious considerations. Some may move to homeschooling from religious schools, in which case their “reason” or “reasons” for homeschooling would not primarily be religious. Others—-regarding them as the responsibility of the family and the church—-may never have expected the schools (public or private) to be responsible for religious or moral instruction. Their decision to homeschool wouldn’t necessarily be explained  in the religious and moral categories offered by the surveys.

In sum, I’m not sure that the surveys can tell us much of anything useful about the changing religious composition of the homeschooling population. As a college professor (and, I hasten to add, not only as a college professor), I’m all for improving the quality of the public schools. But what that would do to anyone’s decision to homeschool or not is not a subject on which these government numbers cast much light.

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