Explaining the Change in Homeschooling, 1970-2010

 Joseph F. Murphy

Frank W. Mayborn Chair & Associate Dean for Special Projects

Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College

Nashville, Tennessee, joseph.f.murphy@vanderbilt.edu


In this article, the tremendous change in the homeschooling population over the last 40 years—from less than 20,000 students in 1975 to over 2,000,000 today—is analyzed. This is accomplished by unpacking the changes in the social, economic, and political fabric of the nation that created an environment conducive to homeschooling.

Keywords: homeschooling, privatization, choice, history

In this paper, the reasons why homeschooling has taken root and flourished over the last 30-40 years is explained. The conundrum we confront is this: Some analysts contend that there is an abundance of homeschooling today because there is a biblical command for parents to take personal control of the education of their children. Others maintain that the phenomenon can be yoked to the visible shortcomings of schools. Both of these points are accurate. However, the biblical rationale is hardly new, and schools have been systematically lambasted for their failures for a century. Indeed, since the 1950s critical analysis of education has become a cottage industry. Yet before 1970 there were almost no homeschoolers and today there are over 2,000,000. The pertinent question is why now?  Why not in the 1930s or the 1960s, for example?

The answer to this fundamental question can be found in an analysis of the changing sociopolitical and economic calculus of the nation writ large. That is, homeschooling is thriving because the essential pillars of society that made it anathema for over a century are being torn down and replaced with scaffolding that supports homeschooling. The argument developed in this paper progresses as follows. As the nation was birthed and developed, important cultural, economic, political, and social ideas were forged into a foundation for government action, or lack thereof (1800-1890). As the nation evolved from an agricultural to an industrial society, much of this initial foundational framework disintegrated. Different economic and sociopolitical ideas were cobbled into a new platform for government action. The liberal, democratic welfare state was formed over this industrial ideological scaffolding (1890-1980). The anchors in this new platform—government control and professionalism (i.e., the reliance on experts to solve societal problems)—made homeschooling nearly impossible. Beginning in the last quarter of the twentieth century, this second national social and political infrastructure also began to crumble, severely undercutting the growth and health of activist government. A third infrastructure began to take shape, forged from very different cultural, economic, social, and political ideas 1980→. It is this new scaffolding that makes social movements such as homeschooling possible.

Before this storyline is unpacked, it is necessary to set the stage by documenting the growth of homeschooling in the U.S. To begin with, there is widespread agreement that homeschooling is the most radical form of privatization in education, and the most aggressive form of choice (Cooper & Sureau, 2007). Under homeschooling, funding, provision, and to a large extent, regulation gravitate from the public to the private sector (Murphy, 1996). Homeschooling is the most popular form of choice, having moved from the outskirts of the school reform drama to the center stage. Homeschooling has moved from the fringe, and often a hostile venue on the fringe, to the mainstream in America in a remarkably short period of time.

The growth of homeschooling in the U.S. has been nothing short of remarkable even using the most conservative estimates available. Only 10,000 to 15,000 children were being homeschooled in the 1970s. By 2010, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million students were part of this group. Growth rates have been calculated on the low end of the scale as in the 7 % to 12 %  per annum range (Basham, Merrifield, & Hepburn, 2007; Ray, 2005, 2011). We also learn that among education alternatives homeschooling has the steepest line of ascent (Bauman, 2002). Since 2000, a time by which the movement was fairly well established, the number of homeschoolers has increased at a rate ten times that of public school students (Kunzman, 2005). Scholars confirm that homeschool enrollment is now about one-fifth the size of private school enrollment, up from zero 40 years ago (Belfield, 2004b; Isenberg, 2007). We find that almost twice as many youngsters are schooled at home as are educated in conservative Christian schools (Glanzer, 2008). And more children are taught at home (2,000,000) than attend charter schools (1,500,000) and receive vouchers combined (Apple, 2007; Belfield, 2004b). When life cycle numbers are compiled, we discover that fully 6 to 12 % of all students will have been educated at home at some time in their K-12 educational career (Houston, 1999; Isenberg, 2007).

Social Context: Before Homeschool (1800-1890)

Shifting Environmental Context

External currents in the larger sociopolitical and economic environment helped form the first period of American education. The economic dimensions of this phenomenon can be traced to a new economic order taking root in the mid-to-late 1800s (Reese, 1995). One aspect of the new economy was the decay of the older system, including the twin pillars of the barter economy and economic self-sufficiency. The other aspect was the emergence of a market economy. With the advent of this new order, the connections between schooling and the economy became more robust. Education now provided a competitive edge in the world outside the pulpit and the university classroom. School was seen increasingly as an avenue to opportunities in the free market. Demand for schooling was on the rise (Anderson & Gruhn, 1962; Sizer, 1964).

Concomitantly—and often in response to changes underway in the economy—powerful social and political forces also began to influence the transformation of schooling. Specifically, Reese (1995) avers that bedrock shifts in the economy eroded “familiar social patterns and relationships” (p. 167), widened class divisions, and “generated new questions about social relationships and the place of schools in society” (p. 2). He suggests that schooling increasingly came to be seen as a solution for these profound social changes. In particular, Reese holds that the following key ideas about the role of schooling in relation to society’s needs flowered in the mid-to-late 1800s—all of which promoted the development of new forms of public education: (a) The well-being of the nation depended on the knowledge of its citizens; (b) an extensive middle class was essential to the prosperity of the country; (c) education provided the key for the creation of productive workers for the new economy; and (d) education was directly linked to social harmony. In other words, schools could help socialize workers into accepting the emerging changes associated with industrialization (Vinovskis, 1985).

Changing Architecture of Schooling

Reese (1995) and Tyack (1974) have uncovered the roots of important governance issues in this era, roots which have occupied a central place in the development of public education. According to these scholars, the key governance issues were forged on the anvil of control. Their work exposes two major points.

First, throughout this era, a rather robust struggle was taking place between divergent ideologies. One side was populated by reformers who believed that centralized control was imperative for fostering the widespread implementation of the public school and for strengthening the quality of the educational system. These progressive reformers were guided by the values of centralization of power, specialization, and professional expertise. They supported a larger role for the state, especially in the area of financial support for education. Decentralized or local control infuriated these reformers. For them, a system of local governance was “archaic, unprofessional, and too decentralized” (Reese, 1995, p. 26). They regularly “highlighted the foibles of local school politics . . . before professional educators set things straight” (p. 26). The local control advocates were, according to the reform crowd, “drags on social progress” (p. 70).

On the other side of the debate were citizens who were leery of the ideas and the initiatives of the reformers. Many simply did not accept the values of the reformers, especially notions of professional control and expert knowledge. They believed in citizen control and self-governance. They emphasized personal liberty and family responsibility (Reese, 1995). Not surprisingly, and unlike the reformers, they “chafed at state intrusiveness in education” (p. 75), believing that central control undermined democracy. For them, decentralized school control was viewed as an asset, not a liability.

Second, by the close of the formative era of the development of public schools, the local-control camp was ascendant. The efforts of the progressives had largely “foundered on the shoals of localism” (Reese, 1995, p. 215). A pattern of decentralization was visible across the nation and local control became the dominant form of governance.

Social Context: Before Homeschooling (1890-1970)

Shifting Environmental Context

According to Tushman and Romanelli (1985), environmental shifts provide an important axis on which major institutional changes are scaffolded, especially significant alterations in the ambient economic, political, and social contexts. On the political front the change with the most impact on education was the rise of progressivism and the development of the liberal democratic state (Murphy, 2000). Rooted in discontent with political corruption and an expanded recognition of government as too limited for the new industrial era, the political landscape was noticeably recontoured in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Direct citizen control and machine politics gave way to bureaucratized institutions led by a cadre of educational experts.

The social tapestry was also being rewoven during this period. The central dynamic was “the transformation of American society from one characterized by relatively isolated self-contained communities into an urban, industrial nation” (Kliebard, 1995, p. 2). Most important from our perspective here is the fact that these significant shifts in social conditions resulted in important changes in schools (Willing, 1942). As Cremin (1961), Kliebard (1995), Tyack (1974), and Wraga (1994) have all demonstrated, with the recognition of social change came a significantly revised vision of the role of schooling.

Turning to the economy, we see the emergence of “new economic realities brought on by the industrial revolution” (Wraga, 1994, p. 2). At the core of the matter was the transformation from an agricultural to an industrial economy, or perhaps more accurately, given the social changes outlined above, to an industrial society (Cremin, 1955). The nation was witnessing the “advent of machine production and its accompanying specialization of occupation” (Koos, 1927, p. 310). Stated in language that eerily would be reintroduced nearly a century later in reshaping the school to the realities of a postindustrial world, it could be said that by 1890 national worries about international economic competition (Spring, 1990) and the demands of advancing technology (Krug, 1964) began to influence the design of the blueprints being used to shape the foundations of the newly emerging model of public education. In ways that were not previously evident (Sizer, 1964), schools became yoked to the needs of the economic system (Spring, 1990): “In effect, some saw the school as a critical means of transforming the preindustrial culture—values and attitudes, work habits, time orientation, even recreations—of citizens in a modernizing society” (Tyack, 1974, p. 29).

Changing Architecture of Schooling

Given this shifting sociopolitical and economic environment, the methods used to govern education and the designs employed to structure schools underwent significant alterations. The defining element of the organizational revolution was the shift from lay control, which dominated the governance landscape before 1890, to a corporate bureaucratic model of governance (Tyack, 1974), to a managerial state (Apple, 2000a). The new scientific models of organization and governance provided some of the defining components of public schooling during the twentieth century (Erickson, 2005).

The organizational transformation that marked the evolution of the school within the new industrial world was laced with two central ideologies, a “corporate form of external school governance and internal control by experts” (Tyack, 1974, p. 146). Both elements drew freely from models supporting the development of the post-agricultural business sector (Callahan, 1962; Newlon, 1934). The external dimension focused on the transfer of power and control from lay citizens to elite decision makers in government (Erickson, 2005; Kirschner, 1991; Tyack, 1974). “Working under the banner of the depoliticalization of schooling and eliminating political corruption, reformers sought to remove the control of schools as far as possible from the people” (Tyack, 1974, p. 167), to eliminate community control. The struggle to separate education from politics was powered in part by both antidemocratic ideology and class prejudice. In terms of influence, we know that this movement accomplished much of its goal, “for it destroyed the decentralized power which had sustained a grass roots lay influence in the schools” (p. 3). Throughout most of the twentieth century, throughout the nation, a closed system of governance had replaced much of the more open system that had prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century. Control had been passed from parents to state agents and professional educators (Murphy, 2006); localism had been eviscerated (Erickson, 2005; Kirschner, 1991).

Shifts in the basic governance equation were accompanied by a reconfiguration in the way schools were managed and structured (Callahan, 1962). One distinctive development was the appearance of a class of administrative experts to whom governance elites delegated control for the management of schools (Gaither, 2008; Stevens, 2001; Tyack, 1974). Borrowing from the new models of organization and management being forged in the corporate sector, reformers began to draw a “strict parallel” (Tyack, 1974, p. 143) between the leadership of business enterprises and the management of schools (Callahan, 1962; Tyack, 1974). They argued that “to change schools, . . . one first needed to concentrate power at the top so experts could take over” (Tyack, 1974, p. 3).

In order to facilitate the use of this centralized power and to maximize its potential to effect change, reformers drew up blueprints for a new structure for schools (bureaucracy) and cobbled together a new philosophy of leadership (scientific management) borrowing freely from material originally crafted in the corporate sector (Callahan, 1962; Newlon, 1934). In so doing, they brought forth the array of operating principles that would form the organizational backbone for public education for most of the twentieth century, principles that collectively represent a distinct break with the model of organization in play before 1890.

Social Context: Homeschooling (1980→)

Dismantling the Twentieth Century Environmental Architecture

The hallmark issue in the homeschooling movement is control. As power and influence were passed from parents and communities to government agents and professional experts throughout the twentieth century, real costs were experienced by parents, costs calculated in terms of loss of control over the schooling of their children (Kirschner, 1991). That is, while the liberal democratic state brought activist government that assumed ever-expanding responsibility for social life (Apple, 2005), it also diminished the influence of parents (Erickson, 2005).

Homeschooling then can be examined as part of an ongoing debate about who should control the education of America’s children—government or parents (Moore & Moore, 1981; Ray, 2000; Riegel, 2001). It is also an essential dynamic in a larger movement to reverse the status quo in the area of control (Bates, 1991; Murphy, 2000; Reich, 2002). Its success rests on a foundation quite different than the architecture supporting the liberal democratic state (Gaither, 2008), one that replaces the corporate bureaucratic model of governance that displaced parents as controlling agents in the twentieth century. The fight for the high ground has been and continues to be waged on two highly overlapping fronts: against government domination of schooling and against the dominant role played by professional educators in the production known as schooling.

The Attack on Government Domination

Sociopolitical critique

One critical strand of the current sociopolitical mosaic is plummeting support for government. Not surprisingly, indicators of dissatisfaction and discontent provide ample support for the claim that something is happening to traditional approaches to public governance in general and school governance in particular (Gaither, 2008).

Critics maintain that government in the United States is troubled and is becoming more so—“that conventional ways of doing business in the public sector [have] failed to deliver acceptable results” (Hassel, 1999, pp. 35-36). They discern a sense of hopelessness about civic government (Katz, 1992) and a crisis of confidence in public institutions and representative government (Putnam, 1995). They point to surveys and opinion polls showing that citizens are distrustful of government agencies and regularly opposed to government sector programs and policies. Other chroniclers of this unrest speak of a mounting sense of skepticism about the public sector in general (Fitzgerald, 1988) and skepticism as to the capacity of government to meet social goals (Hula, 1990a; Lyman, 2000) in particular.

Still other reviewers discern a more fundamental (Savas, 1982) cynicism toward (Hula, 1990b), animus against (Gaither, 2008), distaste for (Donahue, 1989), or distrust of government and government officials and institutions among citizens (Apple, 2000a, b; Kirschner, 1991; Kunzman, 2009b). They describe a “culture of resistance, bitterness, and adversariness” (Bauman, 1996, p. 626). They paint a picture of “political bankruptcy, a vaguely defined state of popular alienation and disaffection from government which stops short of revolution” (Hood, 1994, p. 91). These analysts portray a growing discontent with activist government (Hirsch, 1991) and the rise and spread of an antigovernment philosophy (Apple, 2007). They describe a “fundamental concern that government simply ‘doesn’t work.’  Planning is seen as inadequate, bureaucracy as inefficient and outcomes highly problematic” (Hula, 1990a, p. xiii). They go on to argue that the consent of the governed is being withdrawn to a significant degree. In its softest incarnation, this cynicism leads citizens to argue that government is no longer a reasonable solution to all problems and to question the usefulness of much government-initiated activity (Florestano, 1991; Luebke, 1999). At worst, it has nurtured the belief that government is fated to fail at whatever it undertakes (Starr, 1991). In many cases, it has nurtured the development of a variety of antigovernment political and social movements. There is little question that this widespread “disillusionment with government has extended to all sectors, including schooling” (Gaither, 2008, p. 93).

The economic critique

It is almost a fundamental law that the economy is undergoing a significant metamorphosis. There is widespread agreement that we have been and continue to be moving from an industrial to a postindustrial economy. What is becoming clearer to many analysts is that with the arrival of the postindustrial society, “we are seeing the dissolution of the social structure associated with traditional industrialism” (Hood, 1994, p. 12) and an environment that is less hospitable to government intervention. With the ascent of the global economy, there is an emphasis on new markets (Dahrendorf, 1995; Lewis, 1993), and a “break[ing] of the state monopoly on the delivery of human services so that private enterprise can expand” (Lewis, 1993, p. 84)—conditions that provide many of the seeds for the debate about appropriate governance structures for society and its institutions. At the same time that the economic policy habitat is evolving, the current foundations of the economy—especially the public sector—appear to be crumbling. In particular, the economic principles that have provided the grounding for government actions for most of the twentieth century have been called into question.

The important question here is: What accounts for this discontent and skepticism about the public sector of the economy that is helping fuel privatization initiatives such as homeschooling?  Given the cyclical nature of policy development and other value expressions in American society, it should surprise no one to learn that some of this rising tide of dissatisfaction with public sector initiatives can be characterized as a response to the nearly unbroken growth of government over the last three quarters of the twentieth century—a counter reaction to the progressive philosophy that has dominated the policy agenda for so long (Apple, 2007; Murphy, 2000). According to Hood (1994), for example, the growth of the public sector contained the seeds of its own destruction. The public sector is, in many ways, simply aging and wearing out. Once a major economic model gains ascendancy,

dissatisfaction builds up over time. Unwanted side effects of the policy [become] more clearly perceived. . . . At the same time, shortcomings of the alternative orientation are forgotten, because they have not been recently experienced. Pressure then starts to build for the policy orientation to go over on the other track. (p. 15)


Another piece of the discontent puzzle focuses on the widespread perception that the state is over involved in the life of the citizenry. Critics note that more and more citizens are chafing under the weight and scope of government activity (Collom & Mitchell, 2005). They characterize a government that has gone too far (Hirsch, 1991). They argue that the state has become involved in the production of goods and services that do not meet the market failure test (Murphy, 2002; Pack, 1991) and that government agencies have pushed “themselves into areas well beyond governance. They [have] become involved in the business of business” (President’s Commission on Privatization, 1988, p. 3). The results are predictable: The state, it is claimed, occupies an increasingly large space on the economic landscape, welfare loss due to collective consumption increases, and citizens experience an increasing need for more nongovernmental space (Florestano, 1991). Calls for a recalibration of the economic equation are increasingly heard.

Expanding numbers of citizens begin to experience “some public sector institutions as controlling rather than enabling, as limiting options rather than expanding them, as wasting rather than making the best use of resources” (Martin, 1993, p. 8). Of particular concern here is the issue of values. An increasing number of individuals and groups have come to believe that state intrusiveness includes efforts to establish value preferences (Cibulka, 1996)—values that they believe often undermine their ways of life (Collom, 2005; Cooper & Sureau, 2007; Klicka, 2004). Others argue that, at least in some cases, through interest group and bureaucratic capture, some public sector institutions have actually destroyed the values that they were established to develop and promote (Hood, 1994).

The wearing out of the economic foundations of the liberal democratic state can also be traced to recent critical analyses of the model of public sector activity developed to support expanded state control. The critique here is of three types. First, when examined as they are put into practice, the assumptions anchoring public sector activity over the last century look much less appealing than they do when viewed in the abstract (i.e., conceptually). Indeed, “many of the assumptions and predictions on which the earlier growth of government was based have proved either to be false or at least to be subject to much greater doubt” (President’s Commission on Privatization, 1988, pp. 249-250). Thus, the attack on extensive state control rests on the way in which its limitations have become visible. At the same time, much of the critique of the market economy upon which public sector growth has been justified, especially market failure, has been weakened with the advent of socio-technical changes associated with a shift from an industrial to a postindustrial society (Hood, 1994).

Second, “structural weaknesses inherent in the nature of public-sector supply itself . . . which undermine the whole basis on which it is established” (Pirie, 1988, p. 20) have become more visible—visible to the point that some analysts claim that state ownership and management are inherently flawed. Concomitantly, both the efficiency and effectiveness of governmental activities have begun to be questioned seriously.

Third, it is suggested that the reforms that created the large public sector are themselves much in need of change. Reform is increasingly seen in terms of alternative to, rather than the repair of, the existing public sector.

The recasting of public sector economic policy can also be attributed to stories of gross government incompetence or scandal, and a mounting body of evidence that government enterprises are often inefficient, that it costs more to accomplish tasks in the government than in the primary sector (Gottfried, 1993; Murphy, 1996). Stated alternatively, government is consuming more of the nation’s resource than it should (Richards, Shore, & Sawicky, 1996): “The government provision and production of many goods and services, including the regulation of market activities, generates substantial deadweight losses” (De Alessi, 1987, p. 24).

While widespread concern over the growing costs of government is an important variable in the algorithm of the discontent—especially perceived waste and inefficiency—an even more significant factor is the expanding disillusionment about the overall effectiveness of government action (Donahue, 1989; Hula, 1990b; Lyman, 2000), particularly perceived inability of government to meet its goals. Perhaps nowhere is this perception more vivid than in the arena of the large-scale egalitarian programs initiated in the 1960s and 1970s (Hula, 1990b). A number of critics of government control argue that the conditions that led to the development of these policies have not been ameliorated and that they will “not disappear as a result of having responsibility for them transferred from the private to the public sector” (Savas, 1987, p. 290). In fact, they maintain that such transfers often worsen the situation and create even more problems. They go so far as to suggest that many of our social problems are in reality cratogenic—that is, created by the state.

This widespread dissatisfaction with public sector economic activity has led some to question “whether public production . . . is so inherently inefficient that it results in even greater resource misallocation than do the market failures it aims to correct; whether regulation [government control] is even more costly to society than the initial resource misallocations” (Pack, 1991, p. 282). In tangible terms, it has helped foster a taxpayer revolt and has given birth to an array of citizen initiatives designed to seize control away from existing government structures, including most prominently in the education arena, homeschooling. At the core of these reactions is the “feeling that there must be a better way of doing all those things that governments do not do too well” (Savas, 1985, p. 17): “If government is failing in its efforts to provide essential services, should we not reconsider the role we have given government in these areas?” (Carroll, Conant, & Easton, 1987, p. x).

The Attack on Bureaucracy (Government Agencies and Professional Experts)

Focusing specifically on education, we discover that the attack on government-controlled schooling can be traced to critical reviews of the core system of schooling—governance and control, turning to the theoretical framework developed by public choice theorists and then applying that general framework specifically to the bureaucratic framework of schooling.

The larger narrative

At the heart of the critique of existing governance arrangements is a reassessment of the interests of public employees. Central to this reinterpretation is a dismantling of the basic faith in the benevolence of governmental bureaucracy (Apple, 2007; Buchanan, 1987). According to Niskanen (1971), “The beginning of wisdom is the recognition that bureaucrats are people who are, at least, not entirely motivated by the general welfare or the interests of the state” (p. 36). Rather than accepting the assumption that managers of public agencies are “passive agents [who] merely administer and carry out programs” (Bennett & DiLorenzo, 1987, p. 16) with the sole intent of maximizing public interest, some analysts advance the belief that these agents often make decisions in their own interests (Lyman, 2000; Tullock, 1994b). Bureaucrats are much like other people, “people who are less interested in the ostensible objectives of the organization than in their own personal well being” (Tullock, 1965, p. 21).

In economic terms, this means “that government employees, like other economic agents, respond to the opportunities for gain provided by the structure of property rights embedded in the institutions used to control their choices” (De Alessi, 1987, p. 24) and that bureaus act as a type of special interest group (Hilke, 1992). At the most basic level, this results in the notion of the bureaucrat as a public service maximizer giving way to the conception of experts who attempt to maximize their own utility functions—utility functions that contain a variety of variables: “salary, perquisites of the office, public reputation, power, patronage, [and] output of the bureau” (Niskanen, 1971, p. 38).

Such an analysis continues to argue that because improving one’s utility function is directly dependent on the resources available to the bureau, budget maximization becomes the operant goal of bureau managers (Niskanen, 1971; 1994). Consequently, managers have a strong incentive to engage in bureaucratic imperialism (Tullock, 1965) or empire building (Dudek & Company, 1989). Budget maximization and empire building impose real costs on citizens in terms of public control and overall efficiency of the economy (Bennett & Johnson, 1980). The switch from maximizing the public interest to maximizing the discretionary budget means that bureaus have the potential to become producer-driven (Pirie, 1988), to capture the agency and to direct its energies toward meeting the needs of government employees (Hardin, 1989; Vickers & Yarrow, 1988). The result is goal displacement (Bates, 1991; Downs, 1967; Tullock, 1965). Some public sector work ends up serving the interest of the workforce more than the interest of the constituents (Apple, 2005; Pirie, 1988).

One avenue of this discourse suggests that because public employees are, next to transfer payment recipients, the most direct beneficiaries of government spending (Savas, 1987), they are likely to use the power of the ballot box to promote the objective of government growth (Tullock, 1994a). A second part of this view holds that public sector unions in particular are key instruments in the growth of bureaus and the concomitant subordination of consumer interests to the objectives of the employees themselves. Ramsey (1987) concludes that when the economic influence of unions is combined with political muscle, public-sector unions have considerable ability to tax the rest of society.

A final point of this critical analysis asserts that employee self-interest is nurtured in what might, presented in the best light, be thought of as a symbiotic relationship with the bureau’s sponsor—the intersection where the self-interest of the politician and well-organized workers converge to maximize the utility of both groups: The political power of public employees and their unions is not restricted to their voting strength. Political campaign coordinators and campaign workers are a potent influence on office seekers. The situation lends itself to collusion whereby officeholders can award substantial pay raises to employees with the unspoken understanding that some of the bread cast upon those particular waters will return as contributions. (Savas, 1987, p. 26)

As described above, the well-being of government agents and professional experts, what Hill (2000) refers to as civil service cartels, often comes at the expense of the general citizenry, especially in inefficiencies in delivery and lack of responsiveness to constituents (Hanke, 1985; Hilke, 1992; Hirsch, 1991; Niskanen, 1971, 1994).

The application to education

Over the past quarter century, the belief has taken root that many of the difficulties dominating education originate in the way public schools are organized and governed (Loveless & Jasin, 1998; Nemer, 2002); that “some of public education’s troubles come not from the problems students bring to school with them but from the educational system that unions, school boards, administrators, and legislators have created” (Nathan, 1996, p. 76). Or even more directly, “the current governance of public education makes effective action at the school level almost impossible” (Hill, Pierce, & Guthrie, 1997, p. 13). Specifically, too much self-interest and too much bureaucracy are at the core of educational mediocrity (Snauwaert, 1993): “In recent years, critics have argued that the reforms of the Progressive era produced bureaucratic arteriosclerosis, insulation from parents and patrons, and the low productivity of a declining industry protected as a quasi monopoly” (Tyack, 1993, p. 3). Consistent with the analysis outlined above, there is a sense that producers have “come to dominate most education decisions and government has become their chosen mechanism for retaining control” (Finn, Manno, & Vanourek, 2000, p. 223)—a feeling that in bureaucracy students can be taken for granted because it is adult concerns that matter (Kolderie, 1994). There is growing sentiment that the existing educational governance and management systems are unsustainable (Little Hoover Commission, 1996; Rungeling & Glover, 1991).

Much of the attack on the bureaucracy is directed at educational professionals (elites), who as we saw above were handed (and took) control of schooling during the early decades of the twentieth century—replacing in the process the fairly robust system of local control operating in the nation’s formative years. With the growing distrust in government control in general, this outcome in the domain of educational governance is hardly surprising. Authors from nearly every realm of the homeschooling world (e.g., parents, advocacy leaders, developers, researchers) report that the authority claims of experts (Gaither, 2008; Gatto, 1992; Stevens, 2001) and the accompanying respect (Sheffer, 1995) and autonomy (Apple, 2000a)—and control (Hill, 2000) are being withdrawn (Kunzman, 2009a; Stevens, 1997; Thom, 1997): “Historic deference to expertise has been eroded dramatically in recent years” (Gaither, 2008, p. 4). This, in turn, had produced two outcomes: a significant crisis in educational legitimacy (Stevens, 2001) and social resistance (Hadeed, 1991), with the accompanying belief that parents not professional elites know what is best for their children (Colfax, 1990; Gaither, 2008; Mayberry, 1989).

Critics maintain that school bureaucracies, as currently operated are incapable of providing high-quality education (Elmore, 1993) and, even worse, that bureaucratic governance and management cause serious disruptions in the educational process (Shanker, 1988a, b, c; Wise, 1989), that they are “paralyzing American education . . . [and] getting in the way of children’s learning” (Sizer, 1984, p. 206). These scholars view bureaucracy as a governance-management system that deflects attention from the core tasks of learning and teaching (Elmore, 1993; Lyman, 2000). Still other reviewers suggest that bureaucratic management is inconsistent with the sacred values and purposes of education. Other reform proponents hold that the existing organizational-governance structure of schools is neither sufficiently flexible nor sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students in a postindustrial society (Murphy, 1996). Finally, some analysts suggest that the existing structure has produced an insulated political culture (Finn et al., 2000). They contend that the rigidities of bureaucracy, by making schools nearly impenetrable by citizens, impede the ability of parents and citizens to govern and reform schooling (Collom & Mitchell, 2005, Sarason, 1995; Tyack, 1992).

Not unexpectedly, given this tremendous attack on the basic organizational governance infrastructure of schooling, stakeholders at all levels are arguing that significant reforms are needed to rectify this situation (Elmore, 1993), that “the excessively centralized, bureaucratic control of . . . schools must end” (Carnegie Forum, cited in Hanson, 1991, pp. 2-3). Some analysts look to replace government control with market mechanisms. Others appeal to more robust models of democratic governance. It is this context that has propelled homeschooling to such heights in such a short period of time.

The Evolution of a New Social Context Supporting Homeschooling

New Social, Cultural, and Political Foundations

New ideas are emerging to fill the sociopolitical spaces left after the unraveling of the liberal democratic welfare state that has dominated education for the past century. One of the key elements involves a recalibration of the locus of control based on what Ross (1998) describes as “a review and reconsideration of the division of existing responsibilities and functions” (p. 2) among levels of government. Originally called democratic localism by Katz (1971), it has more recently come to be known simply as localization or, more commonly, decentralization (McGree, 1995; Wells, Lopez, Scott, & Holme, 1999). However it is labeled, it represents a backlash against and a reversal of nearly exclusive reliance on control by government and professional elites (Murphy, 2006; Rofes, 1998).

A second ideological foundation can best be thought of as a recasting of democracy, a replacement of representative governance with more populist conceptions (Rofes, 1988), especially what Cronin (1989) describes as direct democracy. While we use the term more broadly than does Cronin, our conception shares with his a grounding in: (1) the falling fortunes of representative democracy, (2) a “growing distrust of legislative bodies . . . [and] a growing suspicion that privileged interests exert far greater influence on the typical politician than does the common voter” (p. 4), and (3) recognition of the claims of its advocates that greater direct voice will produce important benefits for society—that it “could enrich citizenship and replace distrust of government with respect and healthy participation” (p. 48).

A third foundation encompasses a rebalancing of the control equation in favor of lay citizens while diminishing the power of the state and educational professionals (Murphy, 2000; Tyack, 1992). This line of ideas emphasizes parental empowerment by recognizing the historic interests of parents in the schooling of their children (Gaither 2008; Gottfried, 1993). It is, at times, buttressed by a strong strand of “profound dissatisfaction with and disappointment in many members of the so-called ‘educational establishment’” (Wells, Grutzik, Carnochan, Slayton, & Vasudeva, 1999, p. 525) or antiprofessionalism that subordinates “both efficiency and organizational rationality to an emphasis on responsiveness, close public [citizen] control, and local involvement” (Katz, 1971, p. 306).

The ideology of choice is a fourth pillar supporting homeschooling (Aurini & Davies, 2005; Belfield, 2004a; Whitehead & Bird, 1984). Sharing a good deal of space with the concepts of localism, direct democracy, and lay control, choice is designed to deregulate the demand side of the education market (Beers & Ellig, 1994) and to enable parents to become more effectively involved in the way education unfolds (Bauman, 1996; Lange & Liu, 1999). It means that “schools would be forced to attend to student  needs and parent preferences rather than to the requirements of a centralized bureaucracy” (Hill, 1994, p. 76; also Hill & Bonan, 1991).

Two highly integrated shifts also occupy critical space in the emerging sociopolitical architecture that supports parental control in general and home-based schooling in particular. One is the rise in importance of evangelicalism or conservative Christian ideology as a reaction to the dominant world view of civil secular humanism that helped form the foundation of society for over a century (Carper, 2000; Gaither, 2008; Stevens, 2003) and of schooling for the last 50 years or so (Apple, 2000b; Nemer, 2002; Van Galen, 1991). The result has been a “morally conservative counter revolution” (Bates, 1991, p. 10). More specifically, what has occurred is the “unboxing” or uncaging of evangelicalism, the spread of conservative Christian ideology to historically “non religious” domains of society, especially in this case to the government sector. God as the source of authority has been infused into all sectors of life or perhaps more appropriately there are no non-religious domains in life. The second overlapping and reinforcing dynamic has been the shift from a middle of the road, slightly liberal ideological foundation to the acceptance of a much more conservative ideological platform in the nation (Bauman, 2002; Murphy, 1996), what Apple (2005) describes as a rightward turn in the country.

One thing becomes clearer as one steps back and reviews the analyses of the unraveling and reweaving of the social and, especially, the political aspects of the educational environment. The dismantling of the dominant foundations of the democratic welfare state has undercut the currency of traditional notions of schooling in general and governance in particular (Fuller, Elmore, & Orfield, 1996; Hassel, 1999; Murphy, 2006). A good deal of space in the quest for school improvement has been opened. The reform game need no longer be played on the margins. Or stated alternatively, construction does not need to proceed by welding additions onto the foundations prevalent in the era of the liberal democratic state.

New Economic Foundations

New ideas are also emerging to define the economic domain of society in a postmodern world, many of which share space with the new social and political ideas we just reviewed. Most of these are contained in what can be described as a recalibration of the equation of market-government provision, with considerably more weight being devoted to the market aspects of the algorithm. Stated more directly, the core idea for the reformulation of economic activity is the introduction of significant market forces into the public sector, or, for our industry, the privatization of schooling (Murphy, 1996; 1999). And as we noted at the start and discuss more fully below, homeschooling is the most robust or expressive or radical form of privatization (Aurini & Davies, 2005; Belfield, 2004a; Reich, 2002).

Privatization covers a good deal of ground and has several different meanings (Murphy, 1996). Indeed, analysts have been quick to note that privatization is a multilayered construct (Butler, 1991). A particularly helpful definition has been provided by De Alessi (1987):

The term privatization is typically used to describe the transfer of activities from the public sector to the private sector and includes contracting out as well as reducing or discontinuing the provision of some goods and services by government. More accurately, privatization entails a move toward private property and away from not only government and common ownership but also from government regulations that limit individual rights to the use of resources. (p. 24)

At the most basic level, two elements are common to these, and nearly all other, definitions of privatization—a movement away from reliance on government agencies to provide goods and services and a movement toward the private sector and market forces (Murphy, 1996).

An especially helpful way to see how a reweaving of the economic sector supports homeschooling is to examine the objectives of the privatization movement. Some authors perceive privatization to be a vehicle to help “restore government to its fundamental purpose to steer, not to man the oars” (Savas, 1987, p. 290). Others who view privatization as an element of a more extensive neo-liberal policy package (Martin, 1993) maintain that a key objective, for better or worse, is to reconstruct the liberal democratic state (Starr, 1991), to redefine the operational “set of assumptions about the capacities of democratic government and the appropriate sphere of common obligation” (p. 25). Privatization here is viewed, in particular, as a vehicle to overcome the dependency culture (Martin, 1993) associated with a social order dominated by government activity. Another aim is to depoliticize service operations (Hanke & Dowdle, 1987). As Pirie (1988) argues, “the actual transfer to the private sector . . . can take the service into the purely economic world and out of the political world . . . freeing it from the political forces which acted upon it in the state sector” (pp. 52-53) and overcoming “structural weaknesses inherent in the nature of public sector supply” (p. 20; Lyman, 2000).

Perhaps the central purpose and most highly touted objective of privatization is reduction in the size of the public sector (Pack, 1991). The goal is to downsize or rightsize government (Murphy, 2006; Worsnop, 1992). Based on the belief that government is too large and too intrusive and that government’s decisions are political and thus are inherently less reliable than market decisions (Savas, 1982), the focus is on “rolling back either the rate of growth or the absolute amount of state activity in the social service delivery system” (Ismael, 1988, p. 1).

A further objective is to enhance the overall health of the economy: “If reducing the size of the public sector is the dominant theme in the work of privatization advocates, enhancing the efficiency of the economy as a whole and the public sector in particular is their leitmotif” (Pack, 1991, p. 287). The secondary aims are to enhance efficiency and responsiveness (Bell & Cloke, 1990); to promote productivity and growth (Starr, 1987); to enhance the use of scarce resources (Miller & Tufts, 1991); to ensure that customers are served more effectively (Hanke & Dowdle, 1987); and to promote cost effectiveness by getting prices right (Starr, 1991). Related to the issue of cost effectiveness is still another objective of privatization: to diminish the power of public sector unions (Hardin, 1989).

Finally, privatization is often portrayed as a tactic for promoting choice and accountability in public services (Marlow, 1994; Savas, 1987). “The key word is choice. Advocates claim that privatization will enlarge the range of choice for individuals while serving the same essential functions as do traditional programs” (Starr, 1987, p. 131). According to Gormley (1991) and other analysts, privatization permits individuals to pursue their private choices more freely. These same analysts further posit that more choice will generally produce a more equitable distribution of benefits (Starr, 1987).

A review of the literature in this area shows that privatization represents a particular public philosophy (Van Horn, 1991) and that advocates of privatization fall into a distinctive ideological camp. In particular, as we discussed in the last section on the rebuilding of the sociopolitical foundations, privatization draws strength from political movement toward the right (Apple, 2007; Brazer, 1981) and the fact that “Americans have turned to conservatives for the answers to the most important problems facing the U.S.” (Pines, 1985, p. v). The fusion of a political agenda increasingly dominated by conservative politics (Martin, 1993) and an economic theology signaling a return to fundamentalism (Thayer, 1987) has given birth to the doctrine of neoliberalism (Apple, 2000b; Aurini & Davies, 2005; Seldon, 1987) and to “the ideological and profit-oriented agenda of the New Right” (Martin, 1993, p. 182), the conservative understanding of government as an economic black hole (Starr, 1987). In the process, “an ideology which has long lurked in the darkest shadows of right-wing thinking [has been] transfer[red] into an apparatus at the very centre of the policy process” (Bell & Cloke, 1990, p. 4)

Given the central role of the individual consumer in the market narrative and the reality that privatization represents a shift from government to private provision (and funding and regulation), it will come as a surprise to no one that individual freedom and choice (at least for parents if not children) is at the heart of the newly forming economic foundation on which homeschooling rises. While there is considerable debate about the benefits and costs of privileging “the force of individualism” (Smith & Sikkink, 1999, p. 16) (e.g., where some see the virtues in the right to be left alone [Klicka, 2004] others discern atomization, fragmentation, isolation and an accompanying loss of community [Apple, 2000b; Lubienski, 2000]), analysts on all sides of the homeschooling debate confirm its critical placement in the newly emerging economic architecture of the nation in general (Gaither, 2008) and in the homeschooling movement in particular (Lubienski, 2000). Indeed, as Mayberry, Knowles, Ray, and Marlow (1995, p.102) remind us, “the home school movement perhaps to a greater extent than other movements . . . exemplifies the principles of individualism.”

When viewed through a pragmatic lens, privatization is about the more efficient delivery of higher quality goods and services. However, “as an ideological principle, privatization equals smaller government, lower taxes, and less government intervention in public affairs” (Van Horn, 1991, p. 261). Fueled, as we have seen, by citizen discontent with activist government, newly formed conservative winds are pushing society away from the agenda of the progressive era and toward a reconstruction of (some would argue undermining it) the liberal democratic welfare state (Apple, 2005; Riegel, 2001; Starr, 1991).

Finally, consistent with an increasingly popular libertarian philosophy, there is an ongoing reassessment of the appropriate size of government, in general, and particular units of government, in particular (Tullock, 1988), an emerging “belief that small is beautiful when applied to domestic government” (Fitzgerald, 1988, p. 21), and a rekindling of belief in the appropriateness of self-help and local initiative, especially of traditional local institutions (Savas, 1987). As noted earlier, these winds are blowing us in the direction of decentralization (Murphy, 2000), a “rebuilding America from the bottom up—and the trend away from reliance on political institutions in favor of individual self-help initiatives” (Fitzgerald, 1988, p. 16). New attention is being devoted to “the potential of ‘mediating structures’” (Savas, 1987, p. 239)—and the deleterious effects of large government on these structures—that are situated between the individual and the apparatus of government (Fitzgerald, 1988), such as families, churches, neighborhood groups, and voluntary associations. According to proponents of privatization, based on the belief that “creative local initiatives, informal person-to-person efforts, local role models, and intra-community pressures are more likely to be effective than bureaucrats” (Savas, 1987, p. 239), “we are witnessing the revival of self-help strategies and voluntarism as expressions of independence from government” (Fitzgerald, 1988, p. 26).

Central to this reweaving narrative is a set of key ideas, some more explicit than others, but nearly all of which support the formation of homeschooling as a social and educational movement. Some of these overlap and reinforce the bundles of ideas we saw emerging in our analysis of the shifting sociopolitical environment, ideas such as decentralization, choice, conservatism, and the privileging of citizen control over government action. Others, such as the power of voluntary association, competition, an emphasis on enhancing supply, and the empowerment of the consumer, are additions to the reform engine powering homeschooling.


In this paper, the context that has allowed homeschooling to grow has been examined. The central argument presented is that prevailing economic, political, social, and cultural forces during most of the twentieth century precluded homeschooling from taking root. As those forces have been transformed, an environment conducive to homeschooling has materialized. Both oppositional and supportive forces have been examined in detail.


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