Some 50 million U.S. children have returned to school. But for an increasing number--between 1.5 and 2 million--back-to-school doesn't mean boarding that big yellow bus, but rather clearing off a place at the kitchen table. Though still a fraction of the school population, the homeschooling movement has achieved phenomenal growth in a short time. From 1991 to 1996, the number of homeschoolers nationwide more than doubled, according to Patricia Lines, a former senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education. But the decade's biggest growth spurt may well take place this academic year: Experts project a 15% increase in homeschooling.

Why the strong surge? In addition to the reasons traditionally given for homeschooling--to teach specific religious values, control social interactions, develop close family ties, and improve academic quality--parents cite concern for children's safety at school.

Homeschooling at a Glance

The Parents:
  • The majority of homeschooling is done by mothers, most of whom are not employed outside the home.
  • 94% are white. Most are middle class, married, and have larger-than-average families (3.1 kids versus the national average of 1.9).
  • 88% report at least some college. Most have higher-than-average incomes for families with children ($52,000 versus $36,000).
  • 75% attend church regularly.
  • Roughly half are Baptists or independent fundamentalists.
  • The Children:

  • Kids watch far less TV than same-age peers.
  • The majority are in primary grades. Only 11.4% are at the high school level.
  • Students consistently outperformed 75% to 85% of their grade-level peers in private and parochial schools on achievements tests.

    Source: 1998 study by Lawrence Rudner, Ph.D., University of Maryland at College Park

  • According to Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, based in Purcellville, Va., "Within 48 hours of [the Columbine tragedy], our phones started ringing off the hook. Columbine erased a myth: 'It can't happen in my school.'"

    "Parents can sometimes push aside ideological arguments or even their child's emotional or spiritual well-being," says Brian Ray, Ph.D., president of the National Home Education Research Institute, in Salem, Ore. "But when they think their child might actually be maimed or shot, that's when many of them will be moved to act."

    No such fears plagued Tamara Konczal, of Scarborough, Maine, head of the state's Catholic homeschoolers group. Konczal had begun to teach her children at home long before the recent spate of school shootings, and even now doesn't homeschool out of fear. But she admits to feeling relieved that her kids were at home on April 20, 1999. With homeschooling, she believes, she can assert her family's religious values and protect her child from a host of unsavory threats, including precocious sexuality and peer pressure. "We do shelter our kids," says Konczal. "But they're fragile. It's like with tomatoes: You don't put them out in February."

    Homeschoolers are gaining in more than numbers. In recent years, they have won national spelling and geography contests as well as entry into elite colleges. Harvard University has assigned an admissions officer to review applications from homeschoolers, and Patrick Henry College, founded to cater to homeschoolers, opened in Purcellville, Va., this fall.

    What the Laws Say
    Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, though it is easier to do in some than others because education policy is set by state and local agencies. Wisconsin, for example, considers homeschooling a form of private education and regulates it as such, requiring home-based schools to register with the state and teach a minimum number of hours per year, yet freeing them from specific curriculum requirements and any obligation to administer standardized tests. Other states, like Pennsylvania, directly regulate homeschooling and call for extensive oversight, including curriculum approval and submission of achievement test scores. States such as Oklahoma, Idaho, and Texas, on the other hand, have no registration or testing requirements at all.