Not All Homeschoolers Are Religious (But Many Are)

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on May 14, 2014.

Sometimes I feel like I have to play this thing from both sides.

When I and other bloggers talk about some of the problems in the conservative Christian homeschooling subculture, we are informed by secular homeschool parents that not all homeschoolers are religious, and in fact that religious homeschoolers are just a minority today and not really a problem to be worried about. Well yes, we know that not all homeschoolers are religious. However, it’s a simple fact that many—perhaps even the majority—are.

When I read comments on mainstream news articles about things like Clare being kicked out of her homeschool prom for her dress, I see individuals who assume that all homeschoolers are religious, that all homeschooling is about religious indoctrination, and that homeschooling should therefore be shut down plain and simple. This is not helpful and certainly not true. There are secular homeschool leaders, textbooks, support groups, and conventions. A significant and growing percentage of homeschoolers are not religious homeschoolers.

And here I am, caught in the middle of misperceptions on both sides.

There is a lot I could say here, but I think it might just be simplest to quote from information put out by the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. This passage comes from “Reasons Parents Homeschool,” a page on the organization’s website.

Sociological research on homeschool families and their motivations, practices, and characteristics suggests that, going back as far as the late 1970s and early 1980s, there have been two main groups of homeschooling parents. First are evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who want to give their children a Christian education, and second are progressives who believe that formal schooling stifles children’s natural creativity and that education takes place best outside of the classroom. Throughout the past three decades, these two groups have coexisted in what sociologists and historians have described as an often uneasy tension. While the two groups at times cooperated, they also each created their own local, state, and national homeschool groups, conferences, and organizations. Research suggests that those with religious motivations have been the larger group by far since the 1980s, and that this group has also been the more successful at networking and building organizations and infrastructure.

Recent work suggests that these two groups continue to exist with very similar motivations and characteristics as in the past. Many parents today continue to homeschool for religious reasons, and religious homeschool curriculum is common. Conservative evangelical speakers teaching the supreme importance of the family and the scientific reality of creationism make their rounds speaking at homeschool conventions and before homeschool audiences across the country. At the same time, progressive educational reformers such as John Taylor Gatto speak at “unschooling” conferences and gatherings, encouraging parents to forgo classrooms and textbooks and engage in radically child-led learning.

Even as many parents continue to homeschool for religious or pedagogical reasons, recent sociological work suggests that an increasing number of parents are choosing homeschooling for purely pragmatic reasons: because the academic quality of the local schools leaves something to be desired, or because of bullying or health problems. Some families homeschool in order to be closer as a family, or simply so that children may have access to an individualized education. While homeschooling in the past has often been an act of religious or pedagogical protest, homeschooling has today become mainstream and accepted as a valid educational option. In an era of increasing school choice, parents turn to homeschooling for a variety of practical reasons that are often very family-specific.

I also want to quote briefly from “How Have Scholars Divided Homeschoolers into Groups?“, which adds another dimension to this.

The most recent addition to scholarly literature on homeschooling is Jennifer Lois’ 2012 Home Is Where the School Is (Lois, 2012). In contrast to earlier scholars, Lois focuses specifically on homeschooling mothers. Perhaps the most notable thing about her work is that she categorizes these mothers slightly differently than previous scholars. Rather than dividing them into ideologues and pedagogues or believers and inclusives, she divides them into “first choice” and “second choice” homeschoolers. First choice homeschoolers, she says, are mothers who feel that they are called to homeschool, whether for conservative religious reasons or progressive pedagogical reasons. In fact, Lois’ work seems to suggest that both types of mothers similarly find root for their choice to homeschool in their common identities as mothers. Second choice homeschoolers, in contrast, are those who come to homeschooling after other educational methods fail their children. For these mothers, homeschooling is not an identity but rather a temporary educational options. Lois finds that first choice homeschooling mothers report higher levels of satisfaction and that second choice homeschooling mothers are likely to look forward to the day when their children are grown or back in school.

Feel free to read these entire pages if the excerpts interest you. The basic point I want to make is that, yes, religious homeschoolers make up a significant percentage of both the homeschool population and the infrastructure of the homeschooling world, and that, at the same time, there are many who homeschool for pedagogical or pragmatic reasons that have nothing to do with religion. It is wrong to assume that all homeschoolers are religious (or that all religious homeschoolers are extremists) and it is wrong to assume that religious homeschooling is a marginal or insignificant part of homeschooling as a whole. 

I want to finish with a chart from the National Center for Education Statistics. The data displayed was collected in 2011.


When reading the chart, bear in mind that many scholars feel that sociological work may get at parents’ motivations more accurately than a survey of this sort. I tend to agree, as my parents might put academics down as their number one reason for homeschooling on a survey like this even though they are very clearly and solidly religious homeschoolers. Further, “a concern about environment of other schools” may mean a variety of things, religious or secular. Finally, some scholars question whether religious homeschoolers may be less likely to participate in a government survey of this sort, and whether that may skew the results.

If you want to read more, you may also find “A Brief History of Homeschooling” and “Homeschool Demographics” of interest.