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OPINION | ANGELA R. WATSON: State of education

Homeschool growth in Natural State by Angela R. Watson Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 22, 2022 at 3:10 a.m.

As students across the country return to school, the number of those who will return to the traditional classroom is decreasing. National estimates show that around 6 percent of students are currently homeschooling, up from less than 3 percent just a few years ago. In Arkansas, homeschooling has grown steadily over the last 20 years, with large increases during the pandemic.

For example, in 2001, nearly 12,000 homeschool students were reported by districts across the state. In 2010, that number had risen to almost 16,000. And by 2019 that number had slowly but steadily increased to 22,000.

However, in the 2020-21 homeschool report from the Arkansas Department of Education, there were just over 30,000 homeschooled students reported last year. In that same year, the Arkansas DOE reported that there were 473,000 students enrolled in Arkansas public schools, and approximately 27,000 students enrolled in private schools in the state.

That means that during the 2021-22 academic school year, 6 percent of Arkansas' K-12 students were homeschooled, more than the number of students in the state who attend private schools. In some areas of the state, the percentage is much higher, with districts like Eureka Springs and Searcy topping out at 20 percent.

In Arkansas, homeschool students are equally divided by gender. A larger percentage of homeschooled students are in early grades, with just over 3,000 in kindergarten compared to 2,200 in seventh grade, and 1,500 in 12th grade.

Arkansas' data do not include demographic information. However, there is national evidence that as more families choose to homeschool, their reasons for doing so are diversifying. Similarly, there is evidence that more minority families are choosing to keep their children home. A recent report by Aaron Hirsch of the Center for Reinventing Public Education finds that the most rapidly growing demographic groups within the homeschooling movement are African American and Hispanic families.

Even before the pandemic, homeschooling has been an increasingly popular choice for a variety of reasons. Students with special needs including gifted students may find a better fit in a homeschool environment. Student-athletes and families with less traditional schedules also value the flexibility that homeschooling affords them.

Students who are bullied at school often find homeschooling a haven. In fact, safety is the most common reason given by parents for choosing to homeschool their child, and is an especially prevalent choice for minority families seeking a culturally affirming education. Most recently, the disruption to the education system that came during the pandemic likely pushed many parents, who might not have otherwise considered homeschooling, to make the change.

Homeschooling has also become increasingly feasible as more parents work remotely and are able to supervise their students at home. Similarly, the ability of homeschooled students to virtually connect and collaborate with other students has increased via the Internet. Homeschool families often organize through formal or informal co-ops. Dual-enrollment programs have expanded, which allows more students to work from home. And some enterprising public school districts even allow homeschooled students to take some of their classes, including sports.

While the growth of Arkansas homeschooling in the last academic year was substantial, it is possible that it was driven by families temporarily exiting the education system due to the pandemic.

There is speculation that national homeschool numbers will return to normal in the current academic year. While those data are not yet available for Arkansas, there are data available for other states. Post-pandemic data on homeschool participation from the current 2021-22 academic year show dramatic increases in homeschooling during the beginning of the pandemic but not commensurate declines as schooling began to return to normal. For example, New Hampshire reported 2,955 homeschool students in 2019, which doubled to 6,110 in 2020 and then decreased to 4,185 in 2021.

Other states with current data show similar patterns.

Angela Watson is an assistant research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and a Senior Research Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. She works remotely from northwest Arkansas and is an Arkansas native.

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