After a gunman opened fire on students in Parkland, Florida, the phones started ringing at the Texas Home School Coalition, and they haven’t stopped yet.
The Lubbock-based organization has been swamped with inquiries for months from parents seeking safer options for their kids in the aftermath of this year’s deadly school massacres, first in Parkland and then in Santa Fe, Texas.
“When the Parkland shooting happened, our phone calls and emails exploded,” said coalition president Tim Lambert. “In the last couple of months, our numbers have doubled. We’re dealing with probably between 1,200 and 1,400 calls and emails per month, and prior to that it was 600 to 700.”
Demands to restrict firearms and beef up school security have dominated the debate following the shootings, but flying under the radar is the surge of interest in homeschooling as parents lose faith in the ability of public schools to protect students from harm.
And it’s not just the threat of school shootings. Christopher Chin, president of Homeschool Louisiana, said parents are also increasingly concerned about “the violence, the bullying, the unsafe environments.”
“One of the things we’ve seen definitely an uptick in the last five years is the aspect of violence. It’s the bullying. That is off the charts,” Mr. Chin said.
In his experience, a mass shooting won’t change the minds of parents satisfied with their children’s public-school experiences, but it can tip the balance for those already leaning toward home education.
“I think what happens with these school shootings is they’re the straws that broke the camel’s back,” Mr. Chin said. “I don’t think it’s the major decision-maker, but it’s in the back of parents’ minds.”
Brian D. Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute in Salem, Oregon, who has conducted homeschool research for 33 years, said school safety has increasingly become an issue for parents looking at teaching their kids at home.
He said the top three reasons that parents choose homeschooling are a desire to provide religious instruction or different values than those offered in public schools; dissatisfaction with the academic curriculum, and worries about the school environment.
“Most parents homeschool for more than one reason,” Mr. Ray said. “But when we ask families why do they homeschool, near the top nowadays is concern about the environment of schools, and that includes safety, pressure to get into drugs, pressure to get into sexual activity. It includes all of that.”
After the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, vows by parents to pull their kids out of school erupted on social media, and some of them apparently followed through by making contact with their local homeschool advocates.
“I talk with these people on a regular basis, and clearly after a shooting, more of them are saying, ‘Hey, we’re getting more phone calls, we’ve got more people at the beginner session asking about safety,'” Mr. Ray said.
Not everyone agrees with the homeschool response. Takisha Coats Durm, lead virtual school teacher for the Madison County Schools System in Huntsville, Alabama, said that fleeing the classroom teaches the wrong lesson.
“Even though it seems we may be protecting them, we may be sheltering them instead of teaching them to work and find a solution for the issues and not necessarily running away from them, because these things are going to happen,” Ms. Durm told WAAY-TV in Huntsville.
Her comments came shortly after the May 18 shooting at Santa Fe High School, which left 10 dead, just three months after 17 were killed in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Tracking the numbers
While homeschool advocates are confident their ranks are growing, pinning down the number of U.S. at-home students is a challenge, given most states don’t keep count.
A 2017 U.S. Department of Education report estimated 1.69 million homeschool students from ages 5-17 in spring 2016, using data from the National Household Education Surveys program, which mailed questionnaires to about 200,000 selected households.
Those findings would indicate that homeschooling has been flat since 2012, but Mr. Ray estimated there were 2.3 million homeschool students in spring 2016, using figures provided by the 15 states that track homeschoolers, as well as Maricopa County, Arizona.
His figure represented a 25 percent increase between 2012-16. During the same period, the U.S. school-age population grew by about 2 percent.
“My bottom-line summary is that it’s been growing at an estimated 2 to 8 percent per year, and that’s compounded,” Mr. Ray said.
In Louisiana, which does ask homeschoolers to report their kids, Mr. Chin said there were 30,134 homeschool students registered in January, up from an estimated 18,500 to 20,000 in 2011.
“Homeschooling has exploded in our state,” said Mr. Chin, who homeschools his five children with his wife in New Orleans. “If homeschoolers were their own school district in our state, we would be the sixth largest in the state.”
Texas doesn’t require registration, but Mr. Lambert, who homeschooled his four now-adult children, estimated that the state has about 150,000 families and more than 300,000 students being taught at home.
“In fact we have more students being homeschooled in Texas than we have in traditional private schools in Texas, and that’s quoted by a number of our state officials,” he said.
His organization sponsored a poll last year that found safety ranked fourth among reasons parents decide to educate their kids at home.
“I’m required by law to place my kids in a public school or private or homeschool, but the state is not accountable in terms of the safety of these children,” said Mr. Lambert. “So we get lots of calls from people saying, ‘Hey my kid’s being bullied, my kid’s being attacked, and the school either can’t or won’t do anything about it, so we’re going to take care of our child. We’re withdrawing him.'”
Like Mr. Chin, he said a highly publicized school shooting may come as the tipping point for parents already inclined to pull their kids out of the public system.
“When a shooting happens, I call it the straw that basically breaks their idea of the public schools,” Mr. Lambert said. “They’ve already been thinking about it, and now somebody gets stabbed, or another teacher beats up another kid, or another kid beats up another teacher, and they say, ‘You know what? We don’t want to be there.'”
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