Ep. 303: Big Ideas — with Lance Izumi

March 1, 2022

On this episode of the Big Idea series we welcome back Dr. Lance Izumi and he tells about the research he did for his newest book, The Homeschool Boom: Pandemic, Policies, and Possibilities.

Jason Bedrick: Hello. And welcome back to EdChoice chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick director of policy at EdChoice. And this is another addition of our Big Idea series. Today I’m delighted to be joined once again by Dr. Lance Izumi the senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of many books, some of which we’ve talked about on this podcast, but most recently he is the author of a book titled The Homeschool Boom: Pandemic, Policies, and Possibilities, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Lance, welcome back to the podcast.

Lance Izumi: Thank you so much, Jason. It’s so great to be back on the show with you and with EdChoice, really enjoyed our conversations previously, look forward to talking with you this time around.

Jason Bedrick: Good. Well, let’s dive right in. Now, this is obviously a very timely book. Lots of folks are talking about the homeschool boom, as you noted in your title, let’s start with this. How big is the boom?

Lance Izumi: Well, I think it’s huge, actually. You can look at it several different ways, just recently over the summer, US Department of Education released some numbers showing that nationwide the unenrollment of public school students had reached 1.5 million. So that’s over the time of COVID. And so if you look at that 1.5 million of now unenrolled public school students, and you they’re like, “Well, where did they all go?” Some of them went to charter schools, some of them went to private schools. But really the overwhelming number of them went to homeschooling, or some form of homeschooling anyway.

And you can see that then in the statistics that were issued last year by the US Census Bureau, they looked at the proportion of households in this country where families were homeschooling. And what they found was that in the spring of 2020, you had about 5% of households homeschooling their kids. But by fall of 2020, just a few months later, that proportion had risen to 11%. So more than double. And so you have a huge number of kids who are now being homeschooled in this country. And the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, for example, estimates that the actual number of homeschooled children in this country could be upwards of 8 million right now.

Jason Bedrick: Does the figure from the US Department of Education include families whose children were being educated at home, but they were still enrolled in their assigned district school. Let’s say they’re doing virtual learning, but they’re doing it at home. So are they counted as homeschoolers, or public schoolers, or both?

Lance Izumi: Now I think that’s a very important point you bring up Jason, because people think that just because the education of the child is happening at home, that means to homeschooling. For example, if the regular public school is doing a remote or distance learning type of program because of the COVID school closures last year, then that was counted as homeschooling, that’s actually not. In the census bureau data that I mentioned where you saw the huge increase in homeschooling, that’s actually real homeschooling, that’s not public school at home.

The census bureau actually included in their survey questions for survey respondents, a note basically distinguishing between public school at home and home schooling, and what homeschooling actually meant. So people were fully informed that homeschooling involved, pulling your kid out at the regular public school, choosing your own curriculum, all of those sorts of things. They were not confused that simply because they were distance learning for their kids at home, that that was homeschooling.

Jason Bedrick: So one question I think a lot of our listeners might about the boom is whether this is a flash in the pan, or this is something that’s more lasting, you know? So a lot of the reasons you hear that folks started homeschooling over the last year or two is because they were, let’s say, concerned about their child contracting COVID in public school, or even in a private school where there’s lots of kids around. For others it was, they saw the distance learning that the public school was offering, and they said, “Well, this just isn’t working for my kid.” Or they were concerned about the low quality, or they were concerned about maybe the politics in the classroom. And so the families pulled their kids out.

But quality is one thing, and politics is one thing. But if it’s primary about masking and concerns about contracting the virus, it seems that once the virus finally goes away and things return to a state of normalcy, if that ever happens, that most of those families are then going to go back to whatever sort of school system they were using before. Which do you think is going to happen? Is it going to be that most of these families are going back? Or do you think that the increases in homeschooling are going to be more long-lasting?

Lance Izumi: I think it’s going to be long-lasting, Jason. I mean, I think you can look at that question that you pose several ways. I mean, first of all, you look at polling data that has come out and it shows in many cases that parents who are homeschooling are going to continue that, even beyond the COVID pandemic, whenever that ends. And so there’s that. But there’s also too, when you look at the other issues, it’s not just issues involving mandates like mask mandates or, here where I’m in California, vaccine mandates for students. It’s more than that. I mean, I think you’ve seen with the whole focus on curriculum over the past several months, parents upset about what schools are doing with imposing curriculum, that they don’t agree with, that they feel that may be indoctrinating their kids. They have some kind of real problem with it. And think that while some of those parents are fighting to change those curriculum issues in their school districts, other parents are simply pulling their kids out and homeschooling them because they want to avoid that type of indoctrination, for example.

And so I think that if you look at the wide array of issues that parents are facing, I mean, for example, learning loss. During the COVID pandemic, you saw huge learning losses in reading and math, McKinsey & Company for example, released a study during the summer that showed that the average learning loss in math and English was between four and five months. And amongst African Americans, in schools where you’ve got a majority of African Americans, the learning loss was six months. And in majority low income schools, it was seven months. And so those are huge learning loss figures you’re dealing with.

And if you look at the way schools have tried to address that, if they have tried to address it, in terms of, for example, when the Biden administration has allocated a lot of funding for regular public schools, supposedly to address these issues that came up during COVID. The early research has shown that the schools have really not done a good job of using that money to address the learning issues that kids have had during the COVID pandemic. And a lot of it has just gone to status quo programs, or salaries, or those sorts of things. And so I think parents are seeing that even if normalcy returns to schools, that their kids are going to return to schools where they’re going to be farther behind, that the schools have not done a good job about trying to repair the damage that they’ve caused.

And so I think that a lot of parents are going to continue to homeschool. And also too, I just think that when you have parents who have gotten use to being able to control both the learning environment, the curriculum, all the different learning tools that are available to homeschoolers. I just think that once parents have become acquainted with the homeschool world, that it’s going to be a lot more difficult for them to send their kids back to schools that in many cases have been failures.

Jason Bedrick: So you mentioned learning loss, and you’ve seen that a lot of these studies showing massive learning loss in the past couple years show that the learning losses are even worse for black students and Latino students. And so the incentive for those communities to find alternatives like homeschooling is obviously even greater. Now you could have subtitled your book Busting Myths About Homeschooling, because you spend quite a bit of the book actually doing that. One of the myths that you bust is that homeschooling is only for white fundamentalist Christians. Not that there’s anything wrong with being white or a fundamentalist Christian, but it turns out that that’s actually not the only demographic that’s homeschooling. What did you find about the diversity among homeschoolers?

Lance Izumi: You hit upon one of the biggest myths that I’ve tried to bust in the book, is the fact that homeschooling is probably one of the most diverse movements in education in America right now. I mean, homeschooling crosses racial, income, religious, political, all kinds of different lines in America. And so this idea that homeschooling is only a narrow slice of the American population is absolutely false. And you can look at the data, University of Washington Bothell released studies showing that the homeschool movement is extremely diverse across all of those and demographic groups. Also too, I mean, what I did in the book is, in fact I thought it was so important that I actually made this focus on busting the myth of who homeschools, that my first substantive chapter anyway in the book. And I profiled two different homeschoolers, a Mexican American mom who is an immigrant from Tijuana, Mexico, and also a woman named Demetra Zynga, who is one of the top homeschool, African American bloggers and YouTubers in the country.

And so these women are symbolic or representative of their communities. And I think that it’s important for people to understand that, in these minority communities you see huge growth in homeschooling in the Hispanic community, for example. Again, using that census bureau data from last year, you saw that the proportion of Hispanic families who are homeschooling doubled from 6% to 12%. Amongst African Americans, actually the increase was even greater, you saw that the portion of African American families homeschooling went from 3% to 16%, which is a fivefold increase.

And why are they doing that? Well, I mean, in the case of the Hispanic mom, Magda Gomez, who I interviewed for this book, she said that her kids were doing okay in regular public school, but they were encountering the important safety issues. They were being harassed, one of her daughters would be hit every day by another student at school. And the school really did nothing to stop this. Another daughter was actually threatened with physical harm, having her eyes poked out with a pencil, and nothing was done about it. So those types of safety issues caused her to take both her daughters out of regular public school to homeschool them. And they have really blossomed, and they have done exceedingly well in homeschooling.

Demetra Zynga, the African American homeschooler that I profiled, she says that one of the reasons that people in the African American community are increasing, in terms of homeschooling, is because there are so many resources available for them now than was the case maybe several decades ago. She cited like online resources, you have online curricula that you can choose from, lots of different online curricula. And those types of materials that are also specific to her interests, whether it be the type curriculum, but also too like African American heritage, those sorts of things that are available to them, it’s much more available now. So I think that when you look at who is homeschooling, it’s very apparent that those people who want to paint this as a single type of slice of America are absolutely wrong. You have basically every single segment of America represented in homeschooling.

Jason Bedrick: So Lance, you point out that there is a lot of diversity among homeschoolers, but there’s also a lot of diversity among types of homeschooling. So you get into, in the book at different points, classical homeschool education, unschooling. What are some of the major types of homeschooling that we’re seeing in this country right now?

Lance Izumi: There are, as you mentioned, various types of homeschool methods or modes that parents can choose from. There’s a type of homeschooling that maybe people may have in their mind where the parent is independently homeschooling their child without really any help from any other source. But actually one of the other myths that I tried to bust in this book, The Homeschool Boom, is the fact that you have all these different options for parents to choose from in how they homeschool. It’s not just who is homeschooling, but it’s how you’re homeschooling. So for example, I have a chapter in there about charter schools, and how charter schools often have a homeschool component that assists homeschoolers. So it’s not just parents who want to enroll in the charter school for the five day a week charter school experience, but you also have homeschoolers who’ll enroll in, let’s say a homeschool academy at a charter school.

And those homeschoolers can come into the charter school for maybe a day or two of enrichment classes, art, music, those types of things. Or else you may have homeschool programs through charter schools where the charter school is actually not a brick and mortar charter school, but it is actually a non-classroom based charter school. And so the charter school will actually provide different services to the homeschool parent and child through basically backpacking money onto that child, and the child and the parent can then choose different services. So there are all these different types of services that homeschoolers can use, if they decide to enroll through a program at a charter school.

There’s also things like unschooling, which is a totally different type of a homeschooling experience, where basically you have unstructured type of environment where it’s really the child who is leading the schooling or learning experience. And it’s their passions that are guiding things, and it’s, as I say, less structured. I profile in my book, a unschooling family, which is actually based in the UK. And although they are Americans who originally started unschooling in Massachusetts, but they moved to the UK and have continued to unschool their children, and their kids are very interested in different types of subjects. For example, so the son in this family who’s 12 years old is very interested in his history, and in especially things like Russian history. And so he’s actually reading, as a 12 year old, as a 12 year old, he’s reading the Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn. Now, I don’t know about you, Jason, but when I tried to read the Gulag Archipelago, when I was a college student, I had a hard time. And to think that this kid who’s 12 years old is reading the Gulag Archipelago, just amazing to me.

But I thought what was really interesting was when I interviewed him for the book is that, when I asked him, “Well, what do you think would be happening if you were in a regular public school?” And he said that, “Well, I’m sure that what I would be reading, books about superheroes. And I don’t want to read about books about superheroes, I want to read about the Soviet prison system.” And so why shouldn’t a child like that have the opportunity to guide his or her own learning, and let their passion increase their learning trajectory, instead of being brought down to some lowest common denominator and read about Marvel comic heroes? And so there’s that. So all these different types of homeschooling opportunities and groupings for parents to choose from.

Another chapter in the book, I look at two parents who started a homeschool co-op. And a co-op is basically a voluntary grouping of parents who get together, and then maybe one or two days a week, their kids will get together to learn together. And they may have one of the parents, or several of the parents, designated to maybe teach something that that parent may be an expert in, whether it be math, or geography, or whatever it is. And it’s really a voluntary type of association. And these two parents who I profile, who started this co-op together, the reason why I profiled these two specifically is because one of them describes herself as a flaming liberal, while the other one says that she’s a conservative Christian. And so yet here are these two very different people, at least politically, but who came together, were able to bridge their political device through homeschooling because they agreed that, “We’re not here to indoctrinate our kids. We’re here to provide the best environment for our kids to learn.”

Jason Bedrick: Just a note to the listeners, one of the things I love about your book is, in addition to all of the facts and figures that you provide, you really bring to life the ideas that you’re talking about through stories. Every single chapter has at least a couple of stories of actual families that are engaging in homeschooling. And so you can see it’s, oh, there aren’t just numbers. These are real human beings, real families. It’s really a great read. Final question, what does the future hold for homeschooling? Obviously there’s been a lot of change in homeschooling over the last decade. A lot of change, especially over the last two years, but if you could pull out your crystal ball and just project out, where do you think things are going in homeschool world?

Lance Izumi: There’s several ways to look at that question. First of all, I continue to believe that home schooling’s trajectory, in terms of the sheer numbers of homeschoolers, is going to go up, and I think it’s going to go up very rapidly. I think that the dissatisfaction with the school systems are going be there, and they’re probably going to increase as the years go on. So I think that a lot more parents are going to continue to look to homeschooling. I do think that one of the other reasons why you’re going to see homeschooling continue to be a huge part of the American education landscape is because it’s legal in all 50 states, right? As opposed to school choice legislation or laws, which we’re all in support of, you and I, Jason. But I mean, I’m here in California, we have great charter laws, but we have no education savings account, there are maybe initiatives on the ballot that may be coming down the pipe. But it’s always a dicey thing, as to whether you’re going to see those types of things enacted in certain states.

Whereas homeschooling is available to every single parent if they choose to do that. I do think that as parents get to understand that homeschooling is much more doable, now in this era of COVID where, not just these mandates and things we hear about. But when you think about homeschooling, you think about things like “Well, can parents do it with their work schedule?” Well, now parents oftentimes have more flexible work schedules because of COVID. They might be working at home part of the time, maybe they may be working at their office part of the time. But because of that flexibility in their own work schedule, it actually makes homeschooling more doable. Especially if you’re part of these types of groupings I mentioned, whether it’s a homeschool co-op, or whether you are using a homeschool program at a charter school. Where you can have added flexibility of homeschooling maybe three days a week, and having your child with another group of homeschoolers for maybe one or two days.

So, anyway, I think that’s going to increase in the future. I think that you’re seeing critical masses of homeschoolers now. Whereas homeschooling was just a fringe several decades ago, now I think because we’re seeing maybe 8 million or more kids being homeschooled, that’s a lot of kids. And I think that home schooling’s biggest advertisement is word of mouth. And so once you know that your neighbor, that your friend, or your family member is homeschooling their kid, and it takes the mystery out of it. In my book, I have several examples of homeschool moms who decide to homeschool because people they knew were homeschooling and it’s like, “Oh, maybe I can do that as well.” And when you have so many people now homeschooling, I think that word of mouth is really going to continue to sell homeschooling in a very big way.

The question then is I think, from the government or policy point of view is, how will government react to this homeschool boom? And I think on the one hand, you look at how the unions and the public education establishment have reacted to other types of school choice programs that have gotten very successful, like charter schools. Like here in my state, in California, we all thought that if charter schools got very successful, that the regular public schools would try to emulate the charter schools. Well what’s actually happened is that they have tried to then destroy the competition, in many cases.

And so if homeschooling gets a lot more popular, I think that one of the things that proponents of homeschooling will have to do, is to make sure that those freedoms to homeschool will continue in the future. And to guard against any of these encroachments from government in the guise of regulating, whether it’s safety or accountability of all these types of buzzwords that they may use to try and regulate homeschooling. And I think that’s one of the things that we have to guard against in the future. Also to, how are we going to help homeschoolers, especially those who may be low income? Those are issues that I think the homeschooling community and those of us who support school choice are going to have to address in the future.

Jason Bedrick: Well, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but hopefully there are safety in numbers. So as more families adopt homeschooling, there’ll be a larger constituency that will be even harder to try to control. Lance, thanks again for coming on the podcast. Our guest today has been Dr. Lance Izumi, the senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of a recent book titled The Homeschool Boom: Pandemic, Policies, and Possibilities. Thanks again for joining us.

Lance Izumi: Thanks very much, Jason, and thanks to EdChoice.

Jason Bedrick: Thanks so much for joining us. This has been another addition of EdChoice chats, the Big Idea series. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast, follow us on social media @EdChoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, EdChoice.org. Thanks so much. We’ll catch you next time.