The history of public schooling has been marked by continuous struggles and conflicts over the best way to provide for the education of children (Shor, 1986). In a fundamental sense, these struggles are related to the changing relationship between families and public schools. Previous to the nineteenth century, when families taught their children at home, there was little, if any, distinction between the private and public spheres of life (Sennett, 1977; Cancian, 1987). Family values were directly transmitted to children and the task of `education’ was perceived as an inalienable parental right (Bailyn, 1960; Cremin, 1961). During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, as production tasks were removed from the home to the newly emerging industrial cities, public forms of schooling became essential to secure the conditions within which an increasingly diverse population would encounter common socialization experiences (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Spring, 1976). Compulsory education laws were enacted, the number of state-controlled school systems grew, and a more bureaucratic and centralized system of education emerged. Spring (1986) points out that the real significance of these developments lies in how the new forms of school organization altered the relationship between families and education. From family-based education, to the development of specialized schools, to large state systems, by the twentieth century the traditional relationship between families and schooling had been significantly altered; the role of parents with respect to education was substantially diminished. During the last decade, the U.S. has witnessed a growing number of parents attempting to reverse the history of their diminished control over the education of their children (Carper, 1983; Lines, 1987). One of the most specific forms these attempts have taken is reflected in the growth of the home school movement (Feinstein, 1986; Lines, 1989, 1991).
Research on home education is still in its infancy. There have been few studies not limited by small samples or sampling procedures which greatly limit their significance and generalizability (Wright, 1988; Lines, 1991). Furthermore, previous studies have primarily provided descriptive data and failed to suggest analytical or theoretical lines of inquiry (see Lines, 1991, for a review of this literature). The available research does, however, offer useful information regarding the various subpopulations involved in the home school movement and provides the groundwork upon which other studies can be built.
Past studies have revealed that many parent educators use home-based education as a means to transmit their religious beliefs to their children. Linden (1983) and Mayberry (1988) both found that well over half the parent educators they studied chose to home school as a means to protect their children from the humanistic values disseminated in public schools and provide them with an educational environment more supportive of their religious beliefs (60% and 65%, respectively). Qualitative studies conducted by Bates (1987) and Van Galen (1986) supported these findings. They suggested that many parent educators operate home schools to protect and expand their religious belief systems. Mayberry (1988) provided more detailed information about the religious orientation of many home school parents. In her study, parent educators were predominantly raised in traditional or mainstream religions (e.g., Protestant, Catholic) but switched their affiliation to non-denominational or peripheral religious organizations (e.g., Four Square, Christian Reform, evangelical, Pentecostal). Moreover, these home educators displayed a high degree of religious commitment and attended church significantly more often than the general population.
Although the religious orientation of home school parents has received some attention by previous researchers, most studies have failed to examine either the political characteristics of this group or the relationship between home educators’ religious and political orientations and their decision to teach their children at home (see Mayberry, 1988 for one such study). Mayberry (1991b) has suggested that in order to better understand the social basis of the movement these characteristics need to be examined.
The purpose of this paper is to situate home school participants in a larger social context. We achieve this by examining both the religious and political characteristics of home educators who participated in a study conducted in four Western states. Moreover, the paper adds to the development of the home school literature by exploring  how these characteristics are related to the decision to educate children at home and the relationship between home schools, policy making, and wider social changes.                           Methodology

This study is part of a larger, ongoing, field-initiated federally-funded project that examines home education in four states in order to inform the general public and public school educators about why an increasing number of families are choosing to teach their children at home, to provide information about how the needs of home educated children could be met by public schools, and to identify a range of home school policy suggestions acceptable to both educational policy makers and home school parents (Knowles, Mayberry, & Ray, 1989). The findings and discussion in this report are based on data from only one of the four states–Washington. Based on previous research conducted in Oregon (Mayberry, 1988), Utah (Knowles, 1988), and Nevada (Mayberry, 1991c) and our discussions with home school parents in each state, we believe the findings reported here will be similar to what will be found when data from all four states are analyzed.

Population and Sample
The target population was all home education families in Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Nevada. Home education leaders in each state were consulted to determine the best strategy for contacting the most representative sample of all families in the state. It was decided to use the home school mailing lists of school districts in areas where superintendents would release this information in combination with the mailing lists of statewide organizations that service home school parents.

Survey Instrument
Three researchers collaborated in formulating a survey questionnaire composed of valid and reliable items that would elicit responses relevant to the objectives of the study. A questionnaire comprised of 56 items (or 290 variables for analysis) was constructed. Approximately one-third of the items were drawn from a statewide survey conducted previously in Oregon (see Mayberry, 1988) which focused on examining the demographic, religious, and political characteristics of parent educators. Other sources of questions used to measure these characteristics came from polling agencies such as the National Opinion Research Company, the Gallup Foundation, and the United States Bureau of the Census. In addition, both closed- and open-ended questions were used to explore the rationales parents had for choosing home-based education, the various educational programs and facilities desired by these parents, and the range of policy suggestions acceptable to parent educators and educational policy makers.

Data Collection and Analysis
As mentioned previously, the results reported in this study come from the state of Washington. In Washington, a “neutral” person, trusted by the three groups which provided mailing lists, went through the lists provided to eliminate redundancy. Surveys were then mailed to 4,500 home school families. Due to the timing of the acquisition of the lists and other unforeseen limitations, the list of a second statewide home school organization was merged with 100 additional addresses (not previously identified) and redundancy was eliminated. This second merging resulted in a list of 1,245 addresses. Linear systematic sampling was used to select a representative sample of 472 of these addresses, and surveys were mailed to them. All mailings included a self-addressed stamped envelope for return. The responses of 582 families were usable in this study. It is difficult to establish a response rate from these figures. Problems associated with whether the mailing lists were up-to-date and the degree to which all addresses represented home education families interferes with making an accurate inference about the response rate. We were encouraged to note, however, that our return included respondents from the general demographic and motivation categories of home school parents identified in previous research (Mayberry, 1988; Van Galen, 1986).
Quantitative data (from closed-ended questions) were entered and stored in one data base. The SPSSX (SPSS, Incorporated) statistical program was used for computation of descriptive statistics. Qualitative data (from open-ended questions) were entered onto a data base program. The “constant comparative” method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was used to organize the responses to specific questions relevant to this paper.


Religious Characteristics
The religious characteristics of home school parents in this study follow a similar pattern (see Table 1). For instance, approximately two-thirds felt their religious or spiritual beliefs were `very important’ in making the decision to home school while only 11% considered them to be `not too important’ or `not important at all.’  Over one-quarter of these parents also felt that their parents’ religion and their own religious upbringing was the factor having the greatest impact on their own parenting styles.


–This table is missing in this web page presentation; you may find the PDF format elsewhere on this web site with the table included—

Table 1. Importance of religious beliefs, upbringing, and curriculum in decision to home school.

Consistent with previous research, the home school parents in this study were religiously committed and displayed a high degree of religious orthodoxy (see Table 2). For instance, almost 75% of the respondents attended church `every week’ or `several times’ a week and 89% described their personal religious commitment as `very important.’  Moreover, 84% strongly agreed with the five questions included on the scale of religious orthodoxy which includes items concerning “Biblical literalism and inerrancy, belief in heaven and hell, salvation as the gift only of those accepting Jesus Christ as Savior, and Satan as an actual active personality” (Shupe & Stacey, 1983, p. 113).

Parents in this study also tended to belong to non-denominational and non-mainstream religious organizations (see Table 2). While only one-quarter of the respondents currently belonged to mainstream organizations (e.g., Catholic, Protestant, Baptist), almost one-half belonged to a variety of non-denominational and evangelical organizations. Finally, it is important to note that there was a high degree of religious mobility among these parents. The majority of these parents were raised in mainstream religions, but have since left and joined the smaller, more peripheral religious organizations.


–This table is missing in this web page presentation; you may find the PDF format elsewhere on this web site with the table included—

Table 2. Church attendance, religious commitment, orthodoxy, and organizational affiliation.

It is important to note that by no means do these data suggest that all home school parents are oriented to home schooling due to their religious beliefs. However, there is a large segment of the home school population who do teach their children at home for religious reasons, and religious orientations and beliefs are an extremely important factor in the lives of this group. Religious conviction appeared to be the source of these families’ home school decision. Home schooling allowed some of them to “teach religious truth by having them at home” and to “develop character qualities with a Biblical base.” Others felt they were “inspired by the Lord to home school” and stated that “parents [are] listed in scripture as primarily responsible for education.”  Clearly, home schooling is deeply rooted in their religious world view. The religious home school family perceives public education as corrupted by secular influences and they are motivated to ensure that their religious beliefs are realized in the education of their children. As one mother commented, “If you do not educate primarily with religious and moral values, then you have an educated devil.”

Political Characteristics
Although the religious orientation of home school parents has received some attention by previous researchers, most studies have failed to examine the political characteristics of this group. Mayberry (1991b) has suggested that home school parents engage in political action by circumventing institutional forms of education and that it is imperative that our understanding of this group take into account the political context of their decision. Thus, indicators of the political orientation and viewpoints of this group have been incorporated into this study. For instance, 30% of the respondents in this study identified themselves as “strong Republican,” 17% as “not very strong Republican,” and 26% as “Independent close to Republican.” Thus, almost three-quarters of the sample had an identification with the Republican party and its platform. On the other hand, only 7% of the respondents indicated they had any affinity with the Democratic party. Moreover, when asked about their “political viewpoint,” 68% labeled themselves as “conservative” or “extremely conservative,” while only 5% placed themselves in the liberal camp.
The conservative nature of this group is further illustrated in the types of political activities they have been involved in over the last two years (see Table 3). While over three-quarters of these parents voted in the last election (a percentage much higher than seen in the national population), many were also involved in other types of political actions. For instance, 27% had attended a political caucus or convention, nearly one-quarter donated money to a specific candidate, and 18% had donated money to a Political Action Committee.
The respondents’ written comments gave us more information about the nature of these activities. For instance, much of their political involvement focused on writing letters, circulating petitions, distributing literature, and door-to-door campaigning. Given the conservative orientation of this group, it is likely these activities supported conservative candidates and causes. When the specific political orientations of the activities were addressed, they reflected conservative positions such as pro-life demonstrations and financial support of conservative causes.

–This table is missing in this web page presentation; you may find the PDF format elsewhere on this web site with the table included—

Table 3. Political affiliation and viewpoint.

The conservative orientation of this group was also demonstrated by their lack of confidence in public education, organized labor, and the press-institutions commonly thought of as controlled by liberal elements in society (see Table 4). In each instance, a solid majority of home school parents expressed “hardly any” confidence in these institutions and only a very small percentage felt “a great deal” of confidence. It is interesting to note, however, that institutions commonly thought of as having a conservative orientation were also suspect among this group. The U.S. Supreme court, executive branch of the government, organized religion, major companies, and banks and financial institutions, were among those institutions that the majority of these home school parents expressed “only some” confidence about. In each case, only a small percentage of the parents maintained a “great deal” of confidence in these institutions. Given the political conservatism of home school parents, greater, rather than less, confidence than what was demonstrated was expected. It appears that social institutions, regardless of their political orientation, have little support within the home school group. Moreover, the degree of confidence they do have in these various institutions appears to be significantly less than that of the general public (see Mayberry, 1988).

–This table is missing in this web page presentation; you may find the PDF format elsewhere on this web site with the table included—

Table 4. Degree of confidence in social institutions (in percentages).

Finally, the attitude of home school parents toward government spending for social problems was addressed (see Table 5). The majority of parents felt that “too much” money was being spent on both foreign aid and welfare. However, social problems that had a more direct community impact received more support. For instance, 48% of these parents felt “too little” money was being spent on “halting the rising crime rate,” while a large majority of parents felt government spending in the areas of environmental protection, national health, solving problems in big cities, and dealing with drug addiction, was either “too little” or “about right.”
It is not clear from these findings whether or not the “conservative” political label home school parents applied to themselves actually

–This table is missing in this web page presentation; you may find the PDF format elsewhere on this web site with the table included—

Table 5. Government spending for social problems.

translates into conservative political stances when levels of government spending are at issue. These parents did not support a reduction in social spending in areas that are typically under attack by conservative politicians.
As we have seen, home school parents had little confidence in a wide spectrum of social institutions (both liberal and conservative) but did not have a unified position when it comes to government spending on social problems. It may be that while home school parents “reject” the institutionalized structure of many organizations, they are better able to accept spending for specific programs they feel have an immediate impact on their daily lives. This would be congruent with the suggestion made by Mayberry (1988, 1991b) that the decision to home school may be an incidence of “life-style politics”–that is, an attempt to reinforce, protect, or revitalize sets of beliefs and values that sustain particular “ways of life.”

          Discussion and Policy Implications

This paper has illuminated the religious and political characteristics and orientations of home school parents. In doing so, a number of issues have been raised. First, the religious orientation of many home school parents suggests that the secular framework of public school systems is under attack. These parents’ religious convictions “fit” with the concept of home schooling. Home education appears to be a vehicle for some parents to protect certain religious beliefs and “ways of life” by allowing them to regain control over the primary arena of socialization–the education of children. A unique feature about the religious nature of these parents is their affinity to peripheral, non-mainstream religious organizations. Mainstream institutions have little credibility to a large proportion of these parents.
The significance of the relationship of parent educators to peripheral religious organizations becomes somewhat clearer when we examine their political orientation. As we have discussed, the home school parents in this study, while labeling themselves as politically conservative, tend to have little confidence in mainstream social institutions, even those traditionally thought of as conservative. It appears that home school parents maintain a marginalized position to the larger dominant society–not just in their decision to circumvent public schools, but in other areas of their lives as well. It is likely that the peripheral relationship these parents have to mainstream society is an important element existing before the decision to teach their children at home was made. That is, it may well be that for many the decision to circumvent public schools was a decision congruent with other aspects of their lives.
By examining the sociological research focused on the oppositional tendencies and countermovements that accompany modernization and secularization (see Hammond, 1985), the relationship between the decision to home school and wider social trends gains clearer focus. These studies suggest that as society becomes increasingly rationalized and technologized, there has been a collapse of consensus about the basic functions of social institutions and the values that guide them. New social movements emerge in response to the vanishing consensus, as people attempt to reinforce, protect, or revitalize alternative sets of beliefs and values–that is, systems of meaning through which a stable world view can be sustained.
Heinz (1983) builds upon these ideas and suggests that the family is the key symbol through which meaning systems are constructed, maintained, and reproduced. The disorientation of people in modern society, he contends, is often shaped into challenges against modern culture and emerges as a contest over who is to control the family–the fundamental symbolic sphere of modern culture. The activity of home schooling may well represent a symbolic response to an increasingly differentiated, rationalized, and secularized social system.
Thinking this way about the decision that an increasing number of families are making to teach their children at home sheds new light on policy considerations. Much recent policy has been oriented toward increasingly standardizing and rationalizing educational programs and environments so that disruptions and conflicts in the public education arena can be reduced. If we understand home schooling as well as other forms of privatized schooling as educational alternatives for a segment of the population that does not embrace mainstream (e.g., bureaucratized and rationalized) social institutions, we may find that attempts at standardization and rationalization only exacerbate the problem.
Educational policy makers need to understand the importance home school parents attach to family value systems and “ways of life” in conjunction with acknowledging their resistance toward institutions that organize themselves in an increasingly rationalized manner that marginalizes their participation. Only with such understanding can viable policy that best serves the interests of parents, children, and the state be formulated.
Policy makers are beginning to sense the importance of these issues as they move toward school-based management and parent-partnership programs. We encourage parents and educational administrators to continue in their attempts to establish common ground. Partnerships between communities and school districts, home and schools, and teachers, parents, and learners could potentially be the most beneficial arrangement for constructing cooperative relationships that bridge the gap between public educational institutions and some private interests. In an increasingly rationalized social order where the voice of family interests tend to be obscured, educational programs aimed at incorporating the familial and cultural values of their communities may well address the needs of a growing segment of the population that feel marginalized by the contemporary organization of public education.


Bailyn, B. (1960). Education in the forming of American society. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Bates, V. (1987). The fundamentalist home school movement. Unpublished manuscript, Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR.
Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.
Cancian, F. (1987). Love in America: Gender and self development. Boston: University of Cambridge Press.
Carper, J. C. (1983). The Christian day school movement. Educational Forum, 47 (2), 135-148.
Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school. New York: Vintage Books.
Feinstein, S. (1986, October). Domestic lessons: Shunning the schools, more parents teach their kids at home. Wall Street Journal, pp. 1,24.
Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago: Aldine Press.
Hadeed, H. V. (1991). Social movement participation of homeschooling parents: A collection of loyalties. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Pacific Sociological Association, Irvine, CA.
Hammond, P. E. (Ed.). (1985). The sacred in a secular age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Heinz, D. (1983). The struggle to define America. In R. Liebman & R. Wuthnow (Eds.), The new Christian right (pp. 133-148). New York: Aldine Press.
Knowles, J. G. (1988). Teaching in the manner in which they were taught: Using biographies to understand the tendency of home school parents to replicate teaching methods they often abhor. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Association, New Orleans, LA.
Knowles J. G., Mayberry, M. & Ray, B. (1989). An assessment of home schools in Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington: Implications for public education and a vehicle for informed policy decision (U.S. Department of Education Grant #R117E90220).
Linden, N. J. (1983). An investigation of alternative education: Home schooling. (Doctoral Dissertation, East Texas State University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 44(12), 3457A.
Lines, P. A. (1987). An overview of home instruction. Phi Delta Kappan, 68 (7), 510-517.
Lines, P. A. (1989). Home instruction. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.
Lines, P. A. (1991). Home instruction: Characteristics, size and growth. In J. A. Van Galen & M. A. Pitman (eds.), Home schooling: political, historical, pedagogical perspectives. Norwood, N. J.: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
Mayberry, M. (1988). Doing it their way: A Study of Oregon’s Home Schoolers. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Oregon). Dissertation Abstracts International, 49 (12): 3874A.
Mayberry, M. (1989). Home-based education in the United States: demographics, motivations and educational implications. Educational Review, 41 (2), 171-180.
Mayberry, M. (1991a). The home school movement: Doing it their way. Paper presented at the University Forum Series, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, NV.
Mayberry, M. (1991b). Conflict and social determinism: The reprivatization of education. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association, Chicago, IL.
Mayberry, M. (1991c). 1990 report on home schools in Nevada. Nevada State Board of Education Home Schooling Advisory Council, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mayberry, M. & Knowles, J. G. (1989). Family unity objectives of parents who teach their children: Ideological and Pedagogical orientations to home schooling. The Urban Review, 21 (4), 209-223.
Sennett, R. (1977). The fall of public man. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Shor, I. (1986). Culture wars. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Shupe, A., & Stacey, W. (1983). The moral majority constituency. In R. Liebman & R. Wuthnow (Eds.), The new Christian right (pp. 103-116). New York: Aldine Press.
Spring, J. (1976). The sorting machine: National educational policy since 1945. New York: Longman.
Spring, J. (1986). The American school: 1962-1985. New York: Longman.
SPSS, Incorporated. (Date unknown). SPSSX. Chicago, IL: Author.
Van Galen, J. (1986). Schooling in private: A study of home education. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of North Carolina). Dissertation Abstracts International 40 (5), 1683-A.
Wartes, J. (1987). Report from the 1986 homeschool testing and other descriptive information about Washington’s homeschoolers. Woodinville, WA: Washington Homeschool Research Project.


1. Funding for this Field Initiated Research Project (Grant No. R117E90220) was received from the United States Department of Education. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply