Abraham Lincoln did it. And he did it very well. That is to say the 16th president of the United States pursued his early studies at home on the family farm, later applying his home-based learning in entrepreneurial pursuits and, most famously, in leadership.
Prior to the twentieth century and the rise of compulsory K-12 education, many prominent Americans learned their ABCs and 123s at home either through self-education or tutors. But while Lincoln and other presidents, scholars, tycoons, and scientists were “famous homeschoolers,” their stories shed little light on the experiences of modern homeschool families—especially those who live in rural areas during the Information Age.
In recent years, there’s been a discernible rise in the number of families returning to homeschooling. According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), over 1.5 million children were estimated to have been homeschooled nationwide in 2007. Researcher Brian Ray gauged the number of American homeschoolers to be closer to 2 million in 2010, and other experts have suggested that NCES estimates are too low by at least 10%. Many such researchers believe that parents in states with compulsory school attendance laws may be teaching at home on the sly and that children in states with liberal policies regarding home education are not accurately tracked by state and school officials. Families in extremely isolated, rural areas may be underrepresented as well.
Most published research on rural homeschoolers dates to the late 1990s. Using NCES data from that era, Rebecca Jaycox noted in 2001 that rural homeschoolers represented 2.2 percent of the school-age population, slightly higher than the national average of 1.7 percent.
In a 2001 report for the U.S. Census Bureau, Kurt Bauman determined that “Households with home-schooled children had moderate to high education and income” and “were likely to live with two adults, with one not in the labor force or working part time.” Moreover, “[homeschoolers] are seen to be located in rural and suburban areas of the West which have been the recipient of migration streams from California and other immigration gateway states.” Bauman also determined that, over time, the population of homeschoolers has slowly become more racially diverse. He added, “We have just begun to see the emergence of home schooling as an important national phenomenon.”
Research and anecdotal evidence reveal that homeschooling parents make this choice for their families for reasons as varied the families themselves. The primary reason commonly cited by NCES in 2007 was a desire by parents to provide religious or moral instruction in tandem with traditional subjects. Other prevalent reasons included concerns about the safety of the school environment, dissatisfaction with academic achievement, and unique health concerns including food allergies and illnesses.
knitting iris “Homeschooling is a popular option in rural and urban areas,” said Scott Woodruff senior counsel of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a non-profit dedicated to protecting and preserving parental rights to homeschool their own children. Woodruff, whose own children were homeschooled, handles legal issues for HSLDA members in several states, many of them with significant rural populations. “The public is very sensitive to the fact that public schools are underperforming,” said Woodruff. “Many parents are saying ‘I’m going to take this, the education of my children, on myself.’”
Woodruff noted, too, that word of mouth continues to be a key factor in the spread of homeschooling. “Parents know from the media and friends who homeschool that this is an awesome option,” he said. “Technology has brought an era of falling frontiers. Families are no longer limited by the education options to which they can drive or ride.” Pointing to distance education programs and schools, Woodruff contends that today’s homeschoolers can interact with people all over the world. “From the comfort of my own home,” he said, “my own son took a class with people over a thousand miles away.”
“The remoteness of where we live is what led us to homeschooling,” said Leslie Kinsel, a veteran homeschooling mother of two children, a son and a daughter. The Kinsels live on a 100,000-acre cattle ranch in South Texas, property that has been in the family for three generations. “My son was very computer-oriented,” said Kinsel. “He was the reason we started homeschooling. If we hadn’t had to learn computers for our business, we might not have done it.”
In ninth grade, Kinsel’s son created a web design business. Today, a college student, he is intrigued with robotic design. To nurture his interest in technology, he found mentors online who guided him from afar. “Faith is the only thing that keeps me going, but it is not because of that worldview that we homeschool,” said Kinsel. “It is because of the failure of our local schools. There are great schools out there, but we do not live near them.”
Many moms and dads (and grandparents) find that homeschooling enriches and enhances family bonds. “At one point, we gave the children the option to go to private school in San Antonio,” said Leslie Kinsel. “We would have found a condo where I could stay with them during the week. We would have paid for them to go to the best schools in the city.” But her children opted to continue their home-based studies on the ranch. “They didn’t want to lose the family connection,” said Kinsel.
While affluent families may arguably have the broadest array of education options—and the easiest means of acquiring technology to supplement and expand their home education experience -- rural homeschooling isn’t strictly an option for the wealthy, nor is it pursued by Christian parents only.
“We don’t have much money. We’re not at all wealthy,” said Khadijah Lacina, a homeschooling mother of eight children. Lacina, an American who converted to Islam prior to her marriage, lived for nine years with her family in rural Yemen. “Being poor in Yemen is a whole other thing than being poor here in the States…. We lived on $200 a month in Yemen. You don’t know poverty until you’ve seen places like that.”
In 2008, Lacina’s husband had briefly returned stateside when the Houthi Shi'ites attacked Damaaj, the village in which the family lived at the time. Lacina, who is completing a book based on her blog about her family’s time in Yemen, vividly recalls the sense of isolation she and the children felt. “There was no running water, no electricity, and no Internet. There were bombs going off and we were alone in this rural area. What do we do? Do we change our routine? The children needed structure of some kind, so we continued homeschooling,” she explained. “We did lots of journaling, drawing… creative, artistic projects. It was almost like unschooling… but we kept going.”
While it is the rare American homeschool family that will find itself in a setting as stressful as the Lacinas, many rural homeschoolers may find opposition to their choices from within their own communities. “There is, in my opinion, more hostility toward homeschooling in rural areas, especially where the population is falling,” said Homeschool Legal Defense Association’s Woodruff. “Local schools can become prickly because lower student population census means funding cuts. People may lose their jobs, and schools may close. Administrators may become antagonistic especially if a family of five pulls out of the public school. There is more aggressive hostility and berating of our rural homeschool families.”
Woodruff assists HSLDA members who encounter resistance by making contact with school officials who try to threaten or intimidate families to return to school. Most such cases are resolved quietly and privately, although a few make their way into the press and court system.
The subtler forms of browbeating experienced by rural homeschoolers are more difficult to quantify, however.
“I told a school employee at pre-K time that I did not know if I would send my kids to the public pre-K or Kindergarten classes,” said Kinsel. “Although she disapproved, she did so by attitude and very few words.”
Yet even in the face of local opposition, Woodruff sees rural families—particularly those involved in agriculture—as having certain educational advantages over suburban and urban homeschoolers. “I’m a lawyer, so it’s hard for me to share my occupation with my son. Yet a farmer with land can say to one of his children, ‘I’m going to give you this amount of acreage and you see what you can do with it.’ Rural homeschool families are in a unique position to pass on real-life entrepreneurial skills.”
It’s an idealized, romantic notion, of course, that every rural homeschooler has the opportunity to test her mettle as a farmer, though some are doing just that. Yet inasmuch as rural homeschool families are embracing technology and designing their own educational options against the grain of traditional public education, the seeds of risk-taking and innovation are indeed being sown.
Pamela Price lives and homeschools her son near Leon Springs, Texas. Her first book, on the topic of balancing work, life, and homeschooling, is due in 2013 from GHF Press.