National School Choice Week

Homeschooling Then and Now

Friday A/V Club: When homeschooling was a novelty


Delacorte Press

When the modern homeschooling movement started to emerge in the 1970s, many jurisdictions considered it a crime to teach your children at home. Today homeschooling is lawful in every state, albeit with different degrees of restrictions. That's one of the great victories for educational choice, and its impact is only increasing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of homeschooled children has grown from 850,000 in 1999, when the center started to count them, to 1,770,000 in 2011, the last year for which it has done a tally.

We're long past the days when the stereotypical homeschooler was a hippie or a fundamentalist. They're still there, but they've been joined by many members of the American mainstream.

Here's an artifact from the days when homeschooling still seemed novel and strange. It's a 1981 episode of Donahue, and the guests include two homeschooling families and John Holt, a fervent critic of institutional education. Back then, if Holt's estimate on the show is accurate, there were only about 10,000 homeschooling families in the U.S. (That's families, not students. But even if each of those families had a dozen kids, it would still be a big jump from there to 1999's numbers.)

The audience greets the guests with a mixture of interest, skepticism, and sheer fascination. (One woman accuses one of the families of operating a commune.) Phil Donahue, as always, has a ball hopping around and playing devil's advocate. And the video includes the ads from when the program first aired, so you'll also get to see spots for everything from The Muppet Show to the Barnum & Bailey circus (RIP):

Bonus links: John Holt's one article for Reason, from way back in 1971, is here. The left/right alliance that legalized homeschooling is described here. And past editions of the Friday A/V Club are here.


National School Choice Week runs from January 24 through January 28 and features over 21,000 events involving almost 17,000 schools from all 50 states. Go here for more information about events and for data about how increasing school choice—charters, vouchers, educational savings accounts, and more—is one of the best ways to improve education for all Americans.

As a proud media sponsor of National School Choice Week, Reason is publishing daily articles, podcasts, videos, interviews, and other coverage exploring the ways education is being radically altered and made better by letting more people have more choices about learning. For a constantly updated list of stories, go to Reason's archive page on "school choice."

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  1. What do you thing about this? *puts head down and thrusts microphone like a phallic talisman

    1. I was pretty young, but I have a few memories of my parents watching and making fun of Donahue. His show seems like the fucking Algonquin Round Table by comparison to the cable news opinion shows these days. Can you imagine an interview like this one on MSNBC or Fox News?

      1. Yeah, I recently watched a couple of his shows (Milton and Rand), and was struck by the fact he allowed his guests to make their points.

    2. Also, phallic talisman would be a great band name.

      1. Tallic Phalisman

  2. I was homeschooled and attended private schools throughout my K-12 years. The type of homeschooling families I encountered ran the gamut, but mostly the stereotypes held true. Religious and a little weird. Didn’t keep up with any of the kids after school, but they didn’t seem any worse off than anybody else. And it didn’t stop me from getting a useless undergrad degree from a no-name school, so…

  3. The number roughly doubled, but I don’t see how that supports the assertion that more Mainstream Americans (if such a mythological creature exists) are homeschooling.

    1. That doubling is from 1999 to 2011. The figures you ignored are the 10,000 families in 1981, when the show aired.

  4. I know a surprising number of homeschoolers. Unscintifoc, etc., but I think it not just a fringe.

  5. My parents were on the cutting edge of the homeschool revolution in the late seventies/early eighties. They helped set many precedents and overcame legal hurdles while simultaneously educating my brother, sister and myself.
    They managed to maintain a ‘fuck off slaver’ attitude, and yet, delicately navigate through the bureaucratic traps laid before them.
    I honestly don’t know how they managed.
    And yes, they endured the animus of those whom attempted to label them as some crazy fringe.
    Eventually, my brother aced ornithological biology from Cornell university at age fourteen, and my sister is one of those sought after IT professionals.
    I’m a libertarian precisely because of what my parents instilled in us, and what I saw the government do, ostensibly for our good, but in reality to further it’s own bloated control.
    Thanks, Dad & Mom!

    1. You are a fortunate person.

  6. School choice is not educational freedom. School choice means that the government still requires your child to spend 12 years of their lives in the daytime prison teaching close to the same stuff as every other daytime prison of the parents choosing. Educational freedom blows open the doors of stagnant educational “choices” and truly allows children to develop and grow in many ways…or not but that can be a good thing.…

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