By on 9.2.21 in COVID-19, Education

A growing number of Americans are teaching their children at home. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled nationally from 850,000 in 1999 to 1,690,000 in 2016. The percentage of students who were homeschooled increased from 1.7 percent of all students to 3.3 percent of all students over the same time.

The pandemic has dramatically increased the number of homeschooled students nationally. The U.S. Census Bureau created the Household Pulse Survey to offer near real-time evaluation of how the pandemic impacted Americans’ lives; it is the “…first data source to offer both a national and state-level look at the impact of COVID-19 on homeschooling rates.” The data collected through the survey shows homeschooling increased substantially: the number of households with school-age children homeschooling doubled between spring 2020 and the start of the 2020-21 school year, rising from 5.4% to 11.1% .

An increase in homeschooled students in North Carolina

North Carolina, like the US overall, has increased homeschooling rates over the past two academic years. The Pulse Survey indicates that 5% of children were homeschooled across North Carolina at the end of the 2019-20 school year. By the early part of the following school year, 9% of students across North Carolina were homeschooled.

This is lower than the national level overall, but still almost double the percentage of homeschooled students from the end of the 2019-20 school year to the beginning of the following school year when the pandemic impact on schooling was more evident. In fact, homeschooling students make up the largest district in the state.

Examining NC data provided by the Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Administration further indicates that families shifted away from public schools during the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 school years and that homeschooling has absorbed much of the shift. Homeschooling across North Carolina increased 21 % across these two academic years; private and charter schools increased 3% and 7% respectively, whereas enrollment in Local Education Agencies decreased by 4%.

What is an LEA?

LEAS are public boards of education or other public authority legally constituted within a State to either provide administrative control or direction of public schools.

More specifically, LEA enrollment decreased by 62,931 students (ages kindergarten to 12th).

Some things to note

Month 2 Average Daily Membership (ADM) was used as an estimate for LEA beginning of the year enrollment. Note that homeschool data is not available for kindergarten. The Department of Administration collects data starting at first grade.

The gains in homeschools, charters, and privates still do not offset the declines in LEAs over this period. (Related: Understanding declines in NC public school enrollment).

How do NC K-12 institution changes look across grade levels?

When examining the percent change data from NC academic years 2019-20 to 2020-21 across grade levels for LEAS, charters, and private schools, there are some noteworthy trends that emerge. From 2019-20 to 2020-21:

  • LEAs had decreased enrollments across all grade levels except for eighth and tenth grades. The largest percentage drop was for Kindergarten, which had a decrease of 14%. The next largest decrease was in the fifth grade (-8%). This is the time when students transition from elementary to middle school, which may explain the decrease as students find alternative school options than their local district school.
  • Private schools had enrollment increases in grades K-8 with the largest increase in Kindergarten (+12%), followed by first and second grades (+8% each). The trend in enrollment increases tapered off in high school; total enrollments in private schools in grades 9-12 declined slightly between 2019-20 and 2020-21.
  • Charter schools experienced consistent growth; all grade levels increased from 2019-20 to 2020-21.The largest increases occurred for tenth grade (13%) followed by sixth grade (10%). This may be due to school transitions: district (LEA) elementary schools go through the fifth grade and then transition to middle school; students and parents may decide to switch type of school at that point. The tenth grade’s increase is possibly due to the unusually large cohort of ninth graders in 2019-20.
  • Homeschooling, however, has a very distinct trend across the grades in terms of percent growth. Specifically, homeschool students had the highest percent increase at the first grade level and from there (with the exception of second and third grade), the percentage decreases.

How homeschool students are counted

It is important to note that homeschool students are counted from first grade and above, but not at Kindergarten level.

As you can see, over the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, the percentage increase among homeschooled students is 41% in the first grade and declines to 7% by the twelfth grade. One reason may be that parents with younger children may be less likely to have them participate in a public school given the uncertainty and receiving their first introduction to formal education, whereas older children would be less likely to switch to homeschooling since they’re already experienced and established in public schools.

Why are homeschool enrollments outpacing public school and how has the pandemic influenced this?

Both national and state trends indicate that the population of students attending homeschools has risen since the beginning of the pandemic, though it is part of a broader trend of rising home school enrollments. This shift significantly influences school district funding. Specifically, North Carolina’s funding formula places much of the decision-making power of how to spend money on education at the state level.

North Carolina is one of only 11 states that allocates resources based on staffing allotments, where the state determines staffing positions. A 2016 Program Evaluation Report found that the classroom teacher allotment produces funding inequality between poorer districts and wealthier ones because more senior teachers who are eligible for higher salaries are likelier to teach in wealthier districts. In addition, small changes in number of students can have significant effects on districts’ budgets. The increase in homeschooling across the state means that based on the current allotment system, funding is being siphoned away from poorer districts in comparison to wealthy districts.

The question then becomes what will happen this fall. Already, in North Carolina, several counties are passing mask mandates for in-person learning in public schools. As of the date of this blog (September 2, 2021), there has been an increase in COVID-19 rates across the state (including child COVID hospitalizations) and comes at the time when K-12 students have started back  to school. Should this trend continue, we may continue to see an uptick in homeschool rates for this school year, though we will not know the full scale of these trends until the data is released next July in 2022.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that homeschooling students made up the third largest school district in the state. This was true several years ago -- but has changed -- homeschooling students now make up the largest school district in the state.

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