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Homeschooling: Questioning Authority, Liberty And Democracy In Education

A child supports themself in a green slide.
Courtesy of Valine Ziegler
Homeschooling models are innovating with influences from Montessori philosophy, cooperative teaching, hybrid models with community colleges, among others. Empowered Minds Academy encourages students to teach one another and rely less on authority.

Does homeschooling prepare children for society? Stereotypes about parents who pull their children out of school may not hold as true as they once did. For example, homeschooling is becoming less religious in North Carolina. Last school year, 58 percent of home schools registered as religious as compared to 80 percent in the 1988-89 school year.

The homeschooling movement dates back decades and has always featured a hodgepodge of political views. The initial attempt to loosen mandatory education laws in the 1970s was supported by stubborn segregationists, permissive hippies and Christian parents upset over secular education. Parents with differently abled and neurodivergent children also joined in early to advocate for homeschooling. Distrust of government authority was the common ground between individuals who were otherwise at odds. While religious and single-family homeschooling remain the most prominent approaches, secular and cooperative learning settings are on the rise.

Students walk alongside eachother on a leaf-covered path
Credit Courtesy of Hope Wilder
Homeschooled students come together for field trips, play and shared learning at Pathfinder Community School in Durham

Two schools in Durham provide new approaches to balance a formal school setting and individualized learning. Hope Wilder, executive director of Pathfinder Community School, and Valine Zeigler, founder and head of Empowered Minds Academy, join Host Frank Stasio to discuss the challenges and opportunities of breaking free from traditional educational models. In addition, Thad Domina andEthan Hutt, two scholars from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education, dissect the political history of school choice and homeschooling pedagogies.


Ethan Hutt on the history of homeschooling political advocacy:

We historians usually think about the modern homeschooling movement as starting in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s … You have desegregation happening. You have a push towards equalization of state funding, and you have an increasing trend towards centralized decision making around curriculum and teacher licensure and things like that. You get two camps that develop. On the left, you get people who feel like schools represent a pernicious bureaucracy — they represent an attempt to make all students the same, and they're restrictive. And so you start getting a left movement that really is pushing for deschooling [or] unschooling, trying to remove students from what they consider a negative environment … And on the right, you see — in the wake of culture wars — concerns that schools no longer represent community values, [and] a push from the religious side to create communities that have schools that reflect those values. 

Thad Domina on research into homeschooling:

In truth, homeschooling is a very difficult topic to study systematically. Homeschooling is fairly rare. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates about 3% of American school-aged kids are homeschooled. Homeschoolers are very, very diverse. It's a heterogeneous movement with a lot of different ways of approaching [education]. But one common thread is some level of dissatisfaction and, in many cases, distrust of the educational system, which again makes it difficult to sort of systematically study homeschoolers.

Credit Division of School Business / NC Department of Public Instruction
NC Department of Public Instruction
From the 2019 report entitled Change in North Carolina K-12 Population

Hope Wilder on her organization for homeschoolers:

What happens at Pathfinder is that we let the children self direct their learning and on a day-to-day basis that means that they get to choose their activities within a community structure. So we like to say that community is the curriculum … But we also give the children lots of spare time to play freely. And whenever they do something, it's because they're consenting to that activity. So we have lots of fun offerings that I think are really interesting, like science or going on walks to the creek or organized games. But the children always have a choice to leave the room when they're no longer interested in whatever is being presented.

Valine Zeigler on her choice to homeschool:

I did teach public school for seven years, and I enjoyed it tremendously, even with all of its challenges and difficulties. I was a department chair, mentor, teacher, literacy coach, and earned National Board Certification because I enjoyed it that much. I enjoy thinking deeply about education. Once I became pregnant, we decided to homeschool. Even though I was so passionate about being a public school teacher, we knew we wanted to homeschool [because of our] distrust of the roots of the industrialized education model … We really believe that public schools overall were designed to do what they're supposed to do, and that is squash creativity. So we were really interested in our children really owning themselves as writers, readers, historians, and we wanted to cultivate leaders, not employees or workers.

It was a huge sacrifice. We lost an entire income. In fact, we moved so that I could stay home full-time - Valine Zeigler

Zeigler on the financial burden of homeschooling:

It was a huge sacrifice. We lost an entire income. In fact, we moved so that I could stay home full-time … For homeschooling families who are limited in income — provided that you do your research and you really believe in taking that brave and courageous step of leaving a conventional school — you can build support and create support. I was part of a homeschooling co-op for over 10 years, and I still connect with a lot of those members.

Thad Domina on the societal training that homeschools may lack:

One thing that we count on our public schools to do is to build citizens. And that involves some coercion. In some cases, it involves some socialization. But it's an important part of what our public schools do. So I think you worry about sports. You worry about time with friends. You also worry about teaching children to see themselves as members of a community. And, you know, when I spend time with homeschoolers, I see a lot of a lot of great thoughts about how to do that ... But it's a big challenge.

Grant Holub-Moorman coordinates events and North Carolina outreach for WUNC, including a monthly trivia night. He is a founding member of Embodied and a former producer for The State of Things.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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