Ep. 231: Big Ideas – “Defining Hybrid Homeschools in America” with Eric Wearne

December 23, 2020

In this episode, Eric Wearne joins us to discuss his recent book, Defining Hybrid Homeschools in America.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m grateful to be joined by Eric Wearne, an associate professor with the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University. He is the author of a new book titled, Defining Hybrid Homeschools in America, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Eric, welcome to the podcast.

Eric Wearne: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: So, let’s start with the promise that you make with the title of your book. How do you define hybrid homeschooling?

Eric Wearne: Yeah. So, I think people may have come across some of these schools at some point. If they haven’t in the past, they certainly have come across something like it in the past year or so. But the way I talk about these schools is sort of like a formalized homeschool co-op. So, typically these schools operate two or three days a week in a physical location with students and teachers together in a classroom and the rest of the week, the kids are homeschooled. There are lots of variations on that though. So, some of these schools will meet up maybe one day a week and be home for four days. Maybe they meet for four days at school, but only half of the day. But you might think of them as sort of more formalized versions of homeschool co-ops, where the students are actually enrolled in the school, not only taking classes here and there.

Jason Bedrick: And what type of families are engaging in hybrid homeschooling? Do we have any data on who’s doing this?

Eric Wearne: Yeah. So, this is interesting. This is actually one of the first questions I was trying to get a sense of as I started finding these schools across the country. I was just curious. These schools are kind of a mix of private schools and home schools. So, one of the first questions I asked was are these people homeschoolers, or are they private. And what I found is there’s a huge mix in at least in the schools as they exist right now. So, a survey I did a few years ago, I found schools were typically having something like a quarter of the students had mostly come from full-time public schools. A quarter had been full-time homeschoolers. Another quarter had been at these hybrids schools for a year, and another quarter had been full-time private school students. So, they’re coming from all over. What’s also interesting is that these people think about themselves as homeschoolers and as private schoolers at the same time.

Jason Bedrick: And what do you mean by that? That they think of themselves as homeschoolers and private schoolers at the same time?

Eric Wearne: Yeah, so I can get pushbacks sometimes from the homeschool community where people will say if teachers are doing the assignments and doing all the grading and all of this, then this isn’t really homeschooling, and I understand the argument. But if you talk to these people, what they say is, “No, we really are homeschoolers. We’re just sort of getting support from a physical school building to help us educate our kids.” So, they have kind of this homeschooling heart where they feel like they, the parents, are still the primary educators of the kids. They’re still mostly directing how things are going, but they’re just looking for some outside structure, and help, and maybe accountability. So, they think of themselves as homeschoolers in that sense, but they also like the idea that they’re a part of a… It’s not always a private school, but typically a private school community, right, where the parents are coming together that they know, and they are offering them support as they’re trying to get their kids through the school year.

Jason Bedrick: And what are the main factors that are attracting families to hybrid homeschooling?

Eric Wearne: Yeah, this is another great question. So, across the surveys that I’ve done, the answers come back pretty similarly. And some of the main things that people like are kind of obvious things. Right? They like the flexibility in their schedule. So, if you’re only in school two or three days a week, that frees up a lot of time for you to go visit Grandma in the next state, or to just not feel like you’re a part of some kind of rat race where you’re in school for 40 hours a week. You can get your schoolwork done and then have more time together as a family at night. So, flexibility is one big one. We have a lot of people who come to these from full-time homeschooling, but as the kids get older, they want some help with things like math and science, or they just want to be around more kids as their children get older, and so they like the accountability and the expertise that the school provides.

A lot of schools will have high-level athletes, or artists, or actors, or something like that, and so they like the idea that they can go to school and get all their work done and then have time for practices, or tournaments, or rehearsals, or auditions, things like that. And then we’ve got lots of political, religious, curricular reasons. Right? People just want something more specific than they’re able to get even with an array of other private schools or big comprehensive public schools. So, most of the schools I’ve encountered are small Christian schools, but there’s a number of charter schools too that are starting to organize themselves this way. So, people have a lot of different reasons that they like to enroll in these things.

Jason Bedrick: Your book is subtitled Little Platoons, which is a reference to the great political philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke, who said, as you quote in the book, “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle, the germ as it were, of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” How do hybrid homeschools relate to these Burkian or perhaps Kirkian little platoons, and why do you think that’s a useful frame for understanding them?

Eric Wearne: Yeah, this is a great question and it does guide my thinking on this a lot. I really lean more towards the Russell Kirk’s re-interpretation of it in terms of building small communities as a way to improve society. So, I think these hybrid schools are a great example of civil society coming together in small groups to solve really specific hyper-local problems. And education is a really important issue that they face. So, a lot of times people will try to solve this kind of… Their schooling situation by doing something like starting up a charter school, or starting up a new conventional five-day private school.

Well, people who are listening who have experience in these areas know starting up a charter school is a gigantic proposition. Starting up a conventional private school takes a ton of money. Right? There are lots of financial pressures, lots of legal or political pressures to get these things off the ground. And I think what’s really attractive about these schools is they’re just, in case after case, they’re just normal people coming together and just kind of ignoring the political fights or legal fights. They’re not trying to drum up millions and millions of dollars. They’re just coming together in groups and kind of starting these small entities that are educating kids in their local areas.

Jason Bedrick: You sort of contrast the little platoons and the big battalion. What is the big battalion and is the major advantage of the little platoon that it’s easier to start up and get off the ground, or do you think it has some other advantages as well?

Eric Wearne: Well, the big battalions are things like our large existing public school systems that they try to serve everybody. Right? I think if you’re going to ascribe any motives to them, I think most people make a good faith effort to serve as many kids as they can. Right? One way of doing that or attempting to do that is if you take a huge conventional public school, right? In my area, we’ve got high schools that are 3,000, 4,000 students each. So, one way to try to serve everybody is just to keep getting bigger and then create smaller programs within your huge entity. Right? So, you expand the bureaucracy, try to exploit economies of scale, and things like that. The problem with that is you add more and more layers and the decision-makers, everything gets farther and farther away from the individual families. Right?

So, this big battalion, it’s hard to turn a big battalion or a big battleship around or to do what particular families want you to do.

So, idea of little platoons is instead of trying to build these huge systems and then turning all the dials and finding new subcategories to serve everyone, you just kind of go out on your own with your little band and set up a school the way that you think it needs to be set up to serve your kids and your friend’s kids.

Jason Bedrick: Now, you compared this before, you said that some of these hybrid homeschooling families see themselves as both homeschoolers and private schoolers. How do state regulators see them? As one, the other, both, somewhere in between, something else?

Eric Wearne: Yeah, it depends on the state, really. Some look at all these people as private school students. Sometimes, if you’re not enrolled in a school, you’re a homeschooler. I think the most typical way that states look at these things is that they don’t look at them. Right? They’re pretty thin on the ground in most places, and when they encounter them, the states are totally unsure how to treat them. I had one school leader tell me exactly that. Right? The state regulators just don’t know what to do with us.

A story I’d like to tell is about two different schools that I encountered that are about 10 miles apart from each other. They’re both set up the same way. They had two day a week and they were home three days a week. And so I asked this question of the first principal, “How do your families see themselves? Do you sign the kids up as private school students or as homeschool students or what?” And he said, “Oh, we’re absolutely a private school. Our families come to us and they’re registered as enrolled in our private school.” And then I drove 10 minutes down the road in the same state to another school, and I asked the same question. And that principal said, “Well, you know, we all see ourselves as homeschoolers who just come together a couple of days a week to get our work done.”

So, I think that’s actually a feature, not a bug of these things. Right? Those two schools had very different self-conceptions. In most cases, it doesn’t really matter how they’re classified. Although, and I talk about this in the book, there are some cases where it matters a lot. For example, our state has a state scholarship program for high school graduates. And whether you graduate as a homeschool student or from a private school or public school that’s accredited by a particular group or from an unaccredited school matters a lot in terms of whether you are eligible for this scholarship. So, in some cases, it matters. In others, it doesn’t. The accreditors see schools very differently. And so I’m actually working on a project right now to ask schools in about 15 different states how their states treat them for regulatory purposes.

Jason Bedrick: Are there any particular regulations that in some states you have found have posed significant obstacles to families that want to try hybrid homeschooling or maybe things like seat time requirements? Are those getting in the way?

Eric Wearne: Yeah. I just got some of the data back for this regulatory project, and this is the one the questions that I asked, and my respondents so far haven’t said anything like that. They haven’t said that anything is really getting in their way. They also, interestingly, aren’t begging for help. Something like a $5,000 education savings account would cover the tuition at most of these schools for a school year. Right? The average tuition is somewhere around $5,000 a year. So, my theory is what’s going on is a lot of these schools just like operating outside of whatever structures they can. They’re not looking for policy or legislative help, and they don’t have a ton of barriers. The only barriers are having willing sets of people who are there to put the work in.

Jason Bedrick: Now, if I asked you to take out your crystal ball, where do you see the hybrid homeschool movement going over the next decade?

Eric Wearne: Yeah. So, if you had asked me this in January, I would have said it’s going to continue its kind of slow growth where people notice… Once they hear about one of these schools, they think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” These schools seem to be growing a bit. It’s still a pretty boutique phenomenon. I’m discovering these schools all the time, all over the country, but we’re not talking about in huge numbers. But now, since school closures in March and ones that are ongoing or ones that are coming up, people seem to be a lot more interested in trying different things, whether as founders or as just participants.

Some of the schools I’ve talked to in my recent regulatory survey, I asked them, “How has the virus affected your operations?” And so I asked them a few questions about that. But almost every one of them has said that they’ve seen growth from 2019-20 to this school year. So, my crystal ball would say that as people realize that they kind of like having more bespoke individualized education that doesn’t take up quite as much of their family time, and as technology improves and systems to serve schools this improve or come online, I can see these schools growing even more.

Jason Bedrick: So, before we close, do you have any recommendations for policymakers who are interested in either, at the very least, protecting the ability of families to engage in hybrid homeschooling or even to assist them in some capacity?

Eric Wearne: Yeah, I think the main thing would be sort of to not… The legislator’s tendency is when they find something is they want to regulate it. And I would say, so far, in what I’ve seen, people who are running these schools are doing okay. They just don’t want more things thrown up in their way. Right? So, my first recommendation would be just kind of stay out of their way. They’re doing good work. Occasionally, or often actually, these schools will want to be accredited. So, to the extent that policymakers or accreditors want to help them out, they could sort of set up categories for these schools to be accredited. In Georgia, we encountered a situation where the schools didn’t really qualify to be accredited as five-day private schools, but they weren’t really in a situation where they could be accredited as anything else either.

So, they ended up themselves accredited the same way as sort of some of these credit recovery programs or fully online schools are accredited. And that’s not really what these are either. So, maybe some sort of designation for these schools to get accreditation for the purposes of accessing state college scholarships or other choice funding might be useful too. And then just keeping, like I said, a hands-off approach to things like teacher certification and training, to testing requirements and things like that. These schools are finding a way to serve lots of parents and they’re not asking for a lot of help. So, I think just staying out of their way would be the most useful thing.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Eric Wearne, associate professor with the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. His book, Defining Hybrid Homeschools in America, was the subject of today’s conversation. You can get it on amazon.com and wherever fine books are sold. Eric, thank you so much for joining the podcast.

Eric Wearne: Oh, it’s my honor. Thank you so much.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.