Left, Right, and Online: A Historic View of Homeschooling

Martha López Coleman

Department of Secondary Education and Educational Leadership,

Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas  mcoleman@hollins.edu



Homeschooling is a growing trend in America.  This historical comparative literature review traces the roots of the modern American homeschool movement through its start in the 1960s to the recent growth of online schools.  A brief background to homeschooling is provided.  The influences of John Holt, Dr. Raymond Moore, and online resources and cyber schooling are also discussed.  The counter-culture/Liberal Left and the conservative Christian Right are also described.  Research-based papers on the topic of the history of homeschooling, along with various government studies on homeschooling, are also included in this review.

Keywords: homeschooling, John Holt, Dr. Raymond Moore, online schooling


Homeschooling in America is not a new phenomenon.  Yuracko (2008) proclaimed, “Homeschooling in America is no longer a fringe phenomenon. . . homeschoolers are a diverse group” (p. 123).  Lyman (1998) asserts a growth in dissatisfaction with public schooling as the root cause of the rise of homeschooling in the United States. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) 1999 survey of homeschoolers in the United States found 48.9% of homeschooling parents felt homeschooling provided a better education than public schooling (Bielick, Chandler, & Broughman, 2001); however, this early finding does not necessarily equal to dissatisfaction with public schooling.  Eight years later in 2007, the NCES found that 17 % of the homeschool families surveyed identified dissatisfaction with academic instruction as “the most important” reason for choosing to homeschool and 73% listed dissatisfaction as an important reason (2008).  The number of parents identifying dissatisfaction with academic instruction rose again in the 2011 survey to 19% list dissatisfaction as “the most important” reason and 74% listed dissatisfaction as an important reason (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2013b).

As the number of parents reporting dissatisfaction with public schools rises the number of people identifying as homeschoolers is also increasing.  According to studies conducted in 2003 and 2007 by the NCES, the percentage of homeschoolers had grown 29% from 1999 to 2003 and then another 36% from 2003 to 2007 for a total growth of 74% over the eight year span (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2004, 2008).  The latest numbers from the 2012 National Household Education Survey (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2013a) show the continual upward trend with a slight increase to 3% of people identifying themselves as homeschoolers; this speaks to a need to review the literature to identify major influences in homeschool education.  This historical comparative literature review will trace the roots of the modern homeschool movement through its start in the 1960s to the growth of online schools. John Holt and the counter-culture/Liberal Left, Dr. Raymond Moore and the Religious Right, and the influence of online resources and schools are included in the discussion of the modern homeschool movement.




Education in the United States has its roots in the home.  In colonial times, school was typically held in one’s home around the hearth (Carper, 2000).  In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state to require compulsory school attendance (Ensign, 1969).  This law required every child from age eight to 14 to attend a public school for at least 12 weeks during the year, and 6 of those weeks had to be consecutive (Ensign, 1969).  This law also had a penalty not to exceed $20 for students not attending school (Ensign, 1969). Soon other states followed Massachusetts in passing compulsory school attendance laws.  It was with the passage of such laws that homeschool first became the exception rather than the normal mode of education.  Homeschooling before the modern movement was usually done out of necessity rather than as a political statement, such as distance to a public school (Gaither, 2009b).  The modern homeschool movement took root in the 1970s and was led on the political left by John Holt and then later in the 1980s on the political right by Dr. Raymond Moore (Gaither, 2009b).  It is also important to note that before 1993, homeschooling was illegal in many states (Gaither, 2009b).  Along with exploring the influence of John Holt and Dr. Raymond Moore, this literature review will also spotlight the influence of online-based curriculum, which has spurred the increase of homeschoolers in what is sometimes called a home charter school (Huerta, Gonzalez, & d’Entremont, 2006).


John Holt and the Counter-Culture/Liberal Left


The first bell ringer for modern homeschooling was John Holt.  Solomon (2002) declared Holt “the father of the modern homeschool movement” (para. 1) and Gaither (2009b) asserted Holt was the first to put homeschooling in the national limelight.  Along with bringing the national spotlight to homeschooling, Holt was the first to build a network of homeschooling parents with the publication of his newsletter, Growing Without Schooling, in 1977 (Knowles, Marlow, & Muchmore, 1992; Taylor-Hough, 2010).  John Holt’s influence spreads beyond just bringing national attention to homeschooling; his books and research also extend into homeschool pedagogy.

Although Holt is seen as a homeschool advocate and his later books reflect his philosophical change from public school reformer to homeschool advocate, researchers, like Franzosa, are quick to note that Holt originally called for a reform of public schools, “and reemergence of what he understands as a lost American ideal: self-sufficiency” (Franzosa, 1991, p. 122).  As Drenovsky and Cohen (2012) synthesized,

Holt’s ideas concerning the basic dysfunctions of American education included the notion that when children are too often motivated by fear their natural desire for self-discovery is thwarted, and that they are too often taught for test-taking in American schools. (p. 20)

Holt called for reforming classroom pedagogy to one of nondirective pedagogy, or to a place where children could lead their own learning (Franzosa, 1991).  Holt (1983) wrote, “All I am saying . . . can be summed up in two words – Trust Children.  Nothing could be more simple – or more difficult” (p.viii).  By way of Holt’s change in philosophy to one of individual autonomy, he eventually turned to a call for parents and students to leave the public school system.

Once Holt began to call for a leaving of the public school system, his influence among the homeschooling counter-cultural Left grew.  Wilhelm and Firmin (2009) found many of the homeschooling parents of the 1960s and into the 1970s were “members of the counter-cultural Left” (p 307).  Gaither (2009b) described the counter-culture Left as being disillusioned with the lack of change or slow pace of change in American society, which prompted many of them to drop out of the American mainstream, including public schooling.  Gaither (2009b) voiced, “Many on the left saw formal schools as symbols of everything wrong and destructive in modern life and kept their kids at home” (p. 336).  Homeschooling was a common practice of counter-culture Left communes and collectives, who found public school to be “too Conservative” (Taylor-Hough, 2010), and as such those homeschool communities can trace their “theoretical lineage to the libertarian Left, as promoted by the last teacher and humanist John Holt” (Wilhelm & Firmin, 2009, p 307).

Holt’s influence on homeschooling is rooted in the call for more autonomy for teachers, parents and children (Lyman, 1998), which appealed to counter-culture Left’s “do it yourself” attitude (Gaither, 2009b).  Along with more autonomy, Holt also criticized the lack of humanity in formal education and called for the need for more compassion in the school setting (Lyman, 1998).  Solomon (2002) summarized Holt’s beliefs: “First and foremost, Holt believes that children are born learners and that there is a curiosity in all children that begins at birth, not when they are put in school” (para. 3).  Gaither (2009b) stated Holt called for the liberation of children from schooling and for parents to take back control of their child’s education.  As Franzosa (1991) stated, Holt, “suggested that good and loving parents should find ways of helping their children escape from schooling altogether” (p. 126).

Part of John Holt’s homeschool pedagogy is a concept he called unschooling (Gaither, 2009a).  Holt’s premise of unschooling was:

The liberation of children from adult imposed constraints on their learning. Unschoolers had no formal curriculum, no tests, grades, schedules, or benchmarks. Instead, children were free to do as they please with the parent serving largely as a facilitator of the child’s individual growth and development. (Gaither, 2009a, p. 15)

Taylor-Hough (2010) described unschooling as, “an education through the natural connections and activities in the child’s world . . . without teaching within the confines of the rigid structures of conventional schooling,” (p. 9).  Martin-Chang, Gould, & Meuse (2011) observed, “unschooling embodies the notion of self-directed learning on the part of the child” (p. 201).  The concept of unschooling is one that is still in practice today and is seen as the hallmark of modern counter-culture/Liberal Left homeschoolers (Taylor-Hough, 2010).  Holt’s call to homeschooling was about education taking place in the home rather than just replacing the setting of the public school building with that of a house.  The use of curriculums and strict structures would not fit in with Holt’s vision of homeschooling.

The work of Holt is not without criticism.  Franzosa (1991) described Holt’s work as counterproductive to public school reform.  Franzosa (1991) found Holt’s assertion that loving parents would be the only ones who would homeschool to be judgmental, and Holt’s belief that as more parents leave the public school system, the more likely public school will reform to be naïve.  There is also little research on the subject of the achievements of unschoolers.  Martin-Chang et al. (2011) asserted there is very little known about the academic success of unschoolers.

Holt’s lasting influence on homeschooling is evident in the growing body of research done on homeschooling.  It is rare to read a literature review that does not mention John Holt or unschooling.  While he is generally associated with counter-culture/Liberal Left homeschoolers, his efforts to bring homeschooling into the national spotlight opened the option of homeschooling to all Americans and led to the work of Dr. Raymond Moore, which is discussed in the following section.


Dr. Raymond Moore and the Christian Right


In the modern homeschool movement, Dr. Raymond Moore is the researcher on the political right.  Dr. Moore grounded his approach to homeschooling within a Christian perspective framework (Knowles et al., 1992; Lyman, 1998).  Dr. Moore and his wife, Dorothy, began researching the ideal age for a child to enter into formal public education and within this research, the Moores became convinced “that formal schooling should be delayed until at least age 8, 10, or even as late as 12” (Lyman, 1998, para. 18).  Moore published an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1972 on the dangers of schooling at an early age (Smith, 2007).  Along with advocating a later starting age for public education, the Moores, “also advocate the use of home chores and community service as learning experiences.  The Moores homeschooled their own children, and many parents today turn to their works to guide them through home education” (Drenovsky, & Cohen, 2012, p. 21).  Taylor-Hough (2010) also noted that the Moores were regular contributors to John Holt’s newsletter, Growing Without Schooling, so the Moores and Holt were not in competition, but were simultaneously promoting, researching, and supporting homeschooling.

The Moores joined the national conversation on homeschooling with an appearance on James Dobson’s radio show, Focus on the Family (Gaither, 2009b).  Gaither stated their interviews, “delivered a message that resonated with thousands of disaffected Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, and the Christian homeschooling movement was born” (2009b, p. 338).  Smith (2007) asserted, “Millions of people were exposed for the first time [via the appearance on Focus on the Family] to the idea that they could teach their children themselves” (para. 9).  Carper (2000) described the change in the homeschool movement as follows:

Although the resurgence of home schooling in the 1970s was in large measure led by advocates of progressive pedagogy such as John Holt, the movement rapidly became dominated by evangelical Christians. Despite the increasing diversity of the movement in the 1990s, it remains closely identified with conservative Christianity. (p. 9).

Gaither (2009a) stated, “Conservatives who felt the public schools had sold out to secularism and progressivism joined with progressives who felt the public schools were bastions of conservative conformity to challenge the notion that all children should attend them” (p. 11).  Knowles et al.  (1992) described the growth conservative Christian homeschoolers as having “emerged gradually, first, parallel to the increased activity by Moore . . . and, second, as the conservative right became more vocal over the course of the 1980s” (p. 227).  Previous to the influence of Dr. Raymond Moore, conservative Christian parents preferred to enroll their children in private Christian schools, but when the tax laws changed in the 1980s forcing the closure of many Christian schools, homeschooling emerged as the best alternative to the negative influences of public school (Gaither, 2009a).  As Covey and Covey (2001) stated, “the disenchantment of Protestant evangelicals with the public education system has resulted in a renewed interest in education at home” (para. 6).

The Moores would go on to publish their own homeschooling magazine, akin to Growing Without Schooling, initially called The Family Educator and Family Report, later renamed The Moore Report, and currently known as The Moore Report International (Knowles et al., 1992).  Knowles et al. (1992) asserted this publication served to not only disseminate the philosophy of Moore but also to provide Christian homeschooling families (though the publication is not exclusively intended for Christians) with opportunities for connection.  Ultimately, the publication of both Growing Without Schooling and The Moore Report would gain worldwide distribution, thereby spreading homeschool philosophies across the globe (Knowles et al., 1992).

Wilhelm and Firmin (2009) also discussed the influence of the creation of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) in 1985.  The HSLDA’s work to create legal standing for homeschools, along with the work of Association of Christian School International, is part of the reason a Christian perspective of homeschooling has been dominant since the 1980s (Wilhelm & Firmin, 2009).  Yuracko (2008) stated, “At the heart of the Christian homeschooling movement is the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA)” (p. 127).  The HSLDA serves to not only defend homeschooling against legal challenges but has grown into a political lobby advocating against homeschool regulations (Yuracko, 2008).  Smith (2007) summarized the role of Dr. Moore on the work of the HSLDA as not only a pioneer and passionate advocate for homeschooling but also an expert witness in various court cases in defense of homeschooling.  Michael Farris, founder of the HSLDA, asserted that “Without his [Dr. Moore’s] influence . . . HSLDA would not exist” (Court Report Staff, 2007, para. 11).  Dr. Moore not only focused the national spotlight on homeschooling, but was also the catalyst for the creation of HSLDA and the lasting influence of the Christian Right in the homeschool conversation.

The 1980s were a time of transition for homeschooling.  According to Gaither (2009b), 1985 was a seminal year for homeschooling with the death of John Holt and the creation of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA).  Knowles et al. (1992) noted that the 1980s saw a compartmentalization of homeschooling, leading to further divisions between the Left and Right and then divisions among those in the Right into sections based on Christian denominations.  It is important to note that Dr. Raymond Moore called for unity among Christian homeschoolers rather than a continuation of further divisions (Knowles et al., 1992).  The 1980s also saw a rapid change in technology.  The rise of personal computers and the proliferation of access to the Internet would bring a new era to homeschooling.


Online Resources and Schools


Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, parents wanting more control over their children’s education are turning to alternatives to public school, such as charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling (Fields-Smith & Williams, 2009).  Hammons (2001) concurred, “the standardized-testing binge in many states may be the largest source of new converts to home schooling” (p.48).  In conjunction with parents searching for public school alternatives, the presence of the personal home computer has led to a new era in home education.  The age of the affordable personal home computers has changed the method in which homeschooling is done.  Berger (1997) noted the, “ease of computer use developed from the early 1980s occurred at the same time as an increase in home schooling” (p. 207-208).  Wilhelm and Firmin (2009) pointed out:

Traditional home school education was tethered by books, in vivo instruction, and sometimes to correspondence work.  However, with the recent advances of the internet, satellite instruction, DVDs, and other media technologies, home school instruction has a much broader range of potential for ensuring children achieve learning objectives.  (p. 311)


As technology has advanced, so have the resources available to homeschooling parents and children. A 2003 national survey of homeschoolers conducted by the NCES (2004) found:

Forty-one percent of students who were homeschooled in 2003 engaged in some sort of distance learning measured in the survey. Approximately 20 percent of homeschooled students took a course or received instruction provided by television, video or radio. About 19 percent of homeschooled students had taken a course or received instruction provided over the Internet, email, or the World Wide Web.  (p. 18).

The increased availability of Internet resources allows homeschooling parents to “choose from a rich array of learning materials . . . . online resources can help parents locate, for instance, virtual biology labs, materials from leading scientific institutions such as NASA, and programs offering online learning opportunities” (Dumas, Gates, & Schwarzer, 2010, p. 71).  Online opportunities give homeschooling parents have access to expert help when teaching subjects out of their comfort zone.  Benoit (2011) stated, “Online education can meet these needs, partnering with parents and providing expert assistance and the intellectual support they need to provide a diverse, well-rounded education for their children” (p. 25).

It is not just the curriculum opportunities that are seemingly limitless, now public education has opened the doors to cyber schools or virtual schools, which provides homeschoolers with access to public school resources without having to attend a brick and mortar public school.  These cyber schools are government funded and available online and can include some classes or even an entire school curriculum that allow students to attend class from home via the internet (Ellis, 2008).  As Long (2004) described:

Cyber schools blur the boundary between home and school in that they must rely heavily on parents to monitor students’ activities, certify their child’s attendance and provide instructional support. For this reason, cyber schools offer a particularly attractive option to homeschoolers and many cyber schools focus their student recruitment efforts on these students.  (para. 3)

Cyber schools have allowed parents to maintain control while children still benefit from a public school.  This is especially important as it means that homeschool parents are able, at times, to use the cyber schools free of charge, so the expense of homeschooling becomes the initial cost of a home computer and Internet access (Ellis, 2008).  As Ellis (2008) stated, “The popularity of cyber school learning will continue to impact home schooling, particularly if home-school students exercise the opportunity to move back and forth between publicly funded cyber schools and minimally regulated home schools”  (p. 150).  These cyber schools are usually locally based, funded, and taught by local teachers (Ellis 2008).

Along with cyber schools, the concept of the cyber charter school is also a recent development in education.  According to Huerta et al. (2006), cyber charter schools are non-classroom-based charter schools which means the classes are not in an assigned physical location and can have enrollment from various school districts or even an entire state.  Huerta et al. (2006) continued, “Similar to traditional charter schools, cyber and home school charters are independent public schools created through formal agreement with a state or local sponsoring agency” (p. 104).   The formal agreement alludes to the issue of funding, which is the center of an issue between homeschoolers and public school districts.

These cyber charter schools are not without problems especially when it comes to homeschoolers enrolling in the cyber charter schools.  Huerta et al. (2006) described the issue as:

The large influx of formerly home schooled students, who have chosen to enroll in nonclassroom-based charters, has resulted in an unexpected need for additional state and local funding. Many districts are challenged to reallocate budgets to fund students who were not previously on the public school rolls. (pp. 135-136)

While states have funded online schools for public school students, homeschoolers, who were previously not on the daily attendance counts and therefore not bringing in funds, are flooding the system and causing local school districts to pay the fees for the cyber charter schools.  The issue of how to budget for homeschoolers who are flocking to cyber charter schools despite never having been enrolled or known to the local public school is being solved by requiring students who enroll in a cyber-charter school to have previously attended the local public school prior to enrolling.

However, the budget issue is not all negative.  Demski (2010) reported on a school district in Ohio, Graham Local Schools, using cyber schooling as a way to gain back homeschoolers and thereby earn state funding.  According to Demski (2010), in Ohio, a virtual school with an enrollment of 25 or more students qualifies as a charter school and is eligible for state funding.  By focusing on winning back the 200 or so students lost to homeschooling, Demski (2010) reported, Graham Local Schools were able to gain trust and momentum in the homeschooling community and eventually use the new funding to expand the virtual school to the entire state.  Bohon (2012) found, “ The families that sign on to these public-school virtual academies get “free homeschooling” for their kids — which typically includes “free” computers and other perks — while the school district retains the per-student monies it would have lost had those families gone with another homeschool option” (p. 23).  Virtual schools can become a bridge for providing homeschooling without losing funding for the public school system.

The cyber school/cyber charter school phenomenon within the homeschool community is not without its critics.  Among homeschoolers, relinquishing educational curriculum control back to the state via cyber schools goes against some of the motivations that caused parents to leave the public school system in the first place (Gaither, 2009a).  Gaither (2009a) found:

Right- and left-wing home-schooling leaders have set aside longstanding grudges to unite in protest of virtual schools . . . Animus toward government was what bound leftist and conservative Christian home schoolers together in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is what has brought them back together to oppose virtual charters. (p.18)

Huerta et al. (2006) report, “Although home school charters may offer classes for students and their families to attend together, the courses are not intended as a core learning experience but rather to supplement the direct instruction children receive at home”  (p. 115).  So the core curriculum should be taught by the parents and the cyber schooling is just a supplement.  In 2006, Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter school boasted 60% of those enrolled were former homeschoolers (Johnson, 2013) and while the exact influence of online education on the homeschooling community is difficult to measure, cyber education opportunities will continue to open up as technology advances and become more readily available.




The influence of John Holt and Dr. Raymond Moore, their research, and publications is still growing.  The exact influence of online resources and schools will continue to be an area of study as technology moves forward and becomes more a part of everyday American life.  Will John Holt’s prediction of reform in the public school system brought about by the leaving of students to homeschools ever come to pass?  There still needs to be research into the effects that students attrition is having on public schools.

Along with a call for more general research on homeschooling, there is a need for research on groups still considered to be on the fringes of homeschooling, such as racial minorities and non-Christian religious homeschooling families.  The face of homeschooling is changing and the research on homeschooling needs to allow those new voices to be heard.  As Yuracko (2008) asserted homeschoolers are diverse.  The research on homeschooling needs to reflect this diversity.  The majority of homeschool research currently focuses on White Christian homeschoolers, the “traditional” homeschooler, and this ultimately means the research findings are limited in applicability across the general populace.  Increasing the research base will serve to increase the perception of homeschooling as a viable educational route for all children, not just the “traditional” homeschooler.

Homeschooling is a growing trend in American and the current research points to increasing numbers attrition the public school system for not only homeschools but online schools and other alternative school settings.  Homeschooling in America is not a new phenomenon, and education outside of the traditional brick-and-mortar public school is becoming more common.  The final implications of this exodus from American public schools are not easy to predict.  As public schools have fewer children, funding will also decline.  Will public schools learn to do more with less or will there be a massive change in public schooling that will bring students back to the classroom?




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