What Schooling Choice Will Parents Make in 2021? My Prediction
COVID-19 changed everything about education in 2020. In the past year, I’ve written several articles (including this one) about how COVID-19 has dramatically affected K–12 education. I discussed several surveys from last spring indicating that numerous parents were seriously considering the idea of continuing to homeschool their children in the fall. One report said that 22% of families were planning to walk away from their public or private school and officially say “yes” to homeschooling in 2020–21.
Let‘s stop there for a quick reality check. Prior to the first shelter-at-home orders, 51 million U.S. students were attending public schools, 6 million were enrolled in private schools, and 3 million kids were homeschooled. If indeed 22% of public and private school students switched to some form of learning at home, that would work out to 12 million new students entering the homeschooling population—an astounding fourfold increase! Now, I’m a devoted homeschool advocate, yet I was highly skeptical this would actually happen, even after a RealClear Opinion Research survey revealed that a whopping 41% of families said they were “likely” to homeschool after the lockdowns were lifted. However, as other organizations and social media sites announced similar findings, I couldn’t help but wonder if something earth-shattering was in the works.
At Apologia Educational Ministries, the publishing company I lead, we experienced a dramatic increase in orders and found ourselves scrambling to meet the unprecedented demand for curriculum and resources. Naturally, we watched the market carefully as the start of the new school year neared. When the dust settled, a new Gallup poll confirmed that the homeschool population had doubled overnight to about 6 million students. It turns out that roughly 5% of parents had, in fact, made the switch. Although this number may sound small, you’ll note that it only took 5% of former public and private school families saying “yes” to home education to double the size of the homeschool community.
So what happened between the time the surveys were taken and the fall when actual school choices were made? Why didn’t 41% of families take the leap? Yes, COVID-19 made sending young lives off to school a scary proposition. And yes, the CDC guidelines for wearing masks and social distancing seemed totally impractical for younger school-age children to follow. But the fact is, homeschooling is also a frightening proposition. While home may be the safest place for kids in terms of health and social setting, parents can certainly face doubts about their ability to provide their kids with a solid education. And even if they get over the confidence hump, there is a sacrifice of time and income that must be factored into the decision. It’s likely many parents simply got cold feet and decided to give their public or private school a chance to reopen their doors safely. However, I do suspect that nearly 100% of parents were more intentional in making a school choice decision than in any previous year.
There can be little doubt that today parents are more aware of the educational options available to their families than ever before. They are researching the pros and cons of public school versus private school versus home school. They know they need to be engaged and prepared to make some bold decisions, if needed. They’re now faced with the question of “school choice” in very real and consequential ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly was a disruptive force in the world of education in 2020. So what will happen in 2021? I envision four possible scenarios.
Scenario #1: Homeschool Population Plummets
In this scenario, the pandemic subsides and everyone returns to their previous educational path. Those who left public schools return, and those who left private schools do the same. Many of the families are glad they tried homeschooling, but after a full year, they decide it just isn’t for them. With a vaccine in place, and assuming no new threats emerge, few new families are motivated to give it a try. This means the parents of three million students will consider themselves one-and-done, immediately cutting the homeschooling population in half and thus returning it to 2019 levels.
Scenario #2: Homeschool Population Remains Flat or Decreases Slightly
With the announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine, there are flickering hopes of a return to normalcy amid much lingering uncertainty. In this scenario, some families return to their previous school choice (i.e., public or private) in the fall, but many choose to remain on the homeschooling path—for now. However, as fears begin to subside, there is little or no talk in the media about homeschooling, and the net result is no discernible gain and maybe even a slight decrease in the homeschooling population. The 2020 surge proves to be an anomaly, but few parents are rushing to send their children back to the classroom.
Scenario #3: Homeschool Population Sees Modest Growth
In this scenario, many families who took up homeschooling during the pandemic find that they prefer their new educational lifestyle. Meanwhile, before the new semester begins, many parents who previously considered homeschooling (but chose to stay the course and keep their kids in school) decide that enough is enough. They have grown weary of seeing their schools close and open and close again or watching their students struggle with impersonal virtual classrooms, so they choose to jump ship midyear and give this homeschool thing a try. The media catches wind of this uptick in interest, as new surveys confirm a growing trend, and more families decide to take the plunge. It’s not a massive surge, but the homeschool population does see a modest increase in the fall.
Scenario #4: Homeschool Population Surges Again
In this scenario, many of the newer homeschooling parents discover, after a full year of homeschooling, that they aren’t so fond of public or private schools after all. They’ve come to greatly appreciate the freedom, creativity, flexibility, and safety that homeschooling offers. Many are excited to see their children flourish academically, creatively, and emotionally outside of a conventional classroom. They treasure the closer relationships they’re developing with their kids, and they can no longer imagine going back to the way things used to be. Word spreads as families share their stories of the joys of homeschooling, and a new wave of public and private school families are emboldened to abandon ship in the coming days. New encouragement in the form of support groups, co-ops, blogs, and podcasts emerges, and confidence soars among both new (and experienced) homeschooling parents. Stories begin to appear in the media saying that the pandemic has served as a wake-up call for those who had been considering the possibility of homeschooling for a long time but lacked the incentive to give it a try. A recent article in The Atlantic has already called COVID-19 “a catalyst for families who were already skeptical of the traditional school system—and are now thinking about leaving it for good.” The result is a new tidal wave of families entering the homeschool community, ready to start their own journey. As with any movement experiencing this kind of momentum, there is a palpable energy in the cultural air, with home education playing the role of rising star. (And, let me add, shining brightly!)
I could play it safe and say there is an equal chance that any one of these four scenarios could happen in 2021, but I’m going to go out on a limb. For one thing, I know from firsthand experience that when a family lives the homeschool life with open minds and tender hearts, parents are likely to discover gaps in their children’s understanding and institutionalized worldview that are so big you could drive a school bus through them. They will also soon realize how healthy and productive home education is for their precious children. Although sacrifices are required and the responsibilities loom large, these parents quickly come to anticipate and desire the same blessings that longtime homeschool veterans often talk about. These truths lead me to believe that scenarios #1 and #2 are the least likely to occur.
We’re now halfway through the current school year, and many public school districts have already announced plans to continue with the online format for the foreseeable future to the utter frustration of numerous parents and students who find it a complete waste of time. Social media and news outlets are filled with stories of Zoom fatigue, children losing their innate and natural interest in learning, and the detrimental effects of having no in-person instruction. National School Choice Week is January 24–30, 2021, which I expect will bring a new spike in online searches by parents investigating their options with more scrutiny than ever before. As a result, I believe we will see a significant number of new families starting to homeschool in January and February.
If I’m right about a significant midwinter bump in the number of homeschooling families, then of the above scenarios, #4 appears to be the most probable. So today, January 1, 2021, I’m making the bold prediction that the most significant cultural and educational movement of the last fifty years—homeschooling—will realize a demographic shift of epic proportions for a second consecutive year. I’ll even go so far as to predict a new wave of 3 million first-time homeschoolers, bringing the total number of homeschooling students to 9 million—that’s 15% of the K–12 student population—by the start of the 2021–22 school year.
I will close by asking you to reflect on the words of Robert Frost:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Homeschooling used to be the road less traveled. It’s fast becoming much more popular and for two good reasons: One, you can do it. And two, it’s good—really good—for your kids.
What school choice does your family plan to make?
Walking by faith and enjoying the homeschooling adventure of a lifetime!
Davis is the president of Apologia Educational Ministries, the #1 publisher of Creation- based science and Bible curriculum. He is the author of five illustrated children’s books designed to help parents instill a biblical worldview in the hearts and minds of their preschoolers. He believes that if there was ever a time to homeschool, it is now! You can hear more of what he has to say at the Let’s Talk Homeschool Podcast.
© 2021 Davis Carman