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Homeschool students: The third largest “district” in North Carolina

North Carolina’s growth in homeschooling has outpaced the national trend, making it home to one of the largest populations of homeschoolers in the country.

In the 2016-2017 school year, an estimated 127,847 children were homeschooled. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of homeschooled students in the U.S. has increased from 1,096,000 in 2003 to 1,773,000 in 2012 – an increase from 2.2 percent of the student population to 3.4 percent.

If homeschooled students in North Carolina were grouped in a school district, it would be the third largest district in the state behind Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

In the 2003-04 school year, the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education reported 28,746 homeschools and an estimated 54,501 homeschooled students. In the 2016-17 school year, those numbers jumped to 80,973 homeschools and an estimated 127,847 homeschooled students — an increase from 3.9 percent of students homeschooled in 2004 to 8.4 percent in 2016-2017.

The number of new homeschools opening each year is also growing again. In 1987-1988, the first year for which the Division of Non-Public Education has data, 460 new homeschools opened. From then until 2000-2001, the number of new homeschools opening each year grew rapidly, plateauing at about 6,200 homeschools opening in 2000-2001.

As evident in the graph below, the number of new homeschools opening each year decreased slightly in 2002-2003 and then grew slowly until 2010-2011. Since then, it has grown rapidly over the past six years.

How does North Carolina define homeschooling?

Homeschooling is defined differently in most states. Most have homeschool statutes stating the qualifications to be considered a homeschool. In some states— Massachusetts, for example—homeschools are considered private schools and are regulated as such.

North Carolina defines a homeschool as, “a nonpublic school consisting of the children of not more than two families or households, where the parents or legal guardians or members of either household determine the scope and sequence of academic instruction, provide academic instruction, and determine additional sources of academic instruction.”

What is required of homeschools in North Carolina?

Most states in the U.S. have few regulations for homeschools. North Carolina falls somewhere in the middle.

Along with 42 other states, North Carolina requires homeschools to register with the Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE). Parents must provide the name and address of the school and the school’s owner and chief administrator, but they do not have to report the names, ages, number of homeschooled students, or any other information (which is why the numbers for homeschooled students in the state are estimates, not actual counts).

North Carolina is one of 10 states that has parent qualifications in order to homeschool, requiring parents to have at least a high school diploma or GED.

Parents who homeschool their children have free rein to teach them what they would like in North Carolina, although the state does require that homeschool students take annual standardized tests in English, grammar, reading, spelling, and mathematics. Parents are not required to submit the results or any evidence of compliance with the testing requirement. However, they must keep the test results for at least one year in case the state wishes to inspect them.

Why are so many parents choosing to homeschool their children?

Parents opt out of the public school system for a variety of reasons, but in the most recent National Household Education Survey (2012), dissatisfaction with public schools overtook the desire to provide religious or moral instruction as parents’ most important reason for homeschooling.

In North Carolina, religious affiliated homeschools still outnumber independent homeschools, but not by much (60 percent are classified as religious; 40 percent are independent).

During my research on homeschools last year, I talked with a number of parents who homeschool. Each cited a different reason for wanting to homeschool, but a common theme emerged: parents and students want a more individualized learning experience.

Jessica, a mom of 10, said she chose to homeschool all of her children because of her own experience being homeschooled as a teenager.

“I was always very bored in school, always waiting on the other kids,” she said. “I would often be put in gifted or accelerated learning classes that were only supplemental. Those were the only times there was anything in school that really challenged me.”

Once she started homeschooling, Jessica completed her junior and senior years of high school in one year and had time to pursue other interests.

Another parent, Karen, said, “Even though her [daughter’s] private school was excellent, there were certain things they wanted mastered before other things. I understood why they did that, but it can’t always work for everyone. Now I have a lot more freedom to tailor the experience to my kids’ strengths.”

While there are many more reasons parents choose to homeschool their children, it is clear that a growing number of families see it as a viable alternative to public or private schools — a trend that shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.