Secular home-schooling grows in NC as more identify as non-religious schools

RALEIGH - The desire to educate their children about God is less of a reason for many North Carolina families to home-school their children instead of sending them to a public school.

Religious-based home-schoolers still make up the majority of registered home schools in North Carolina, but their percentage has been steadily dropping. Secular home-schoolers are now outgrowing religious home-schoolers, helping to fuel the continued rapid increase in the number of home schools in the state.

“The reason for us home-schooling is not to instill some sort of like worldview foundation,” said Christy Batts, a longtime Raleigh home-school parent and a member of Homeschool Explorers, a support group for secular home-schoolers in the Raleigh area. “It’s more for a love of learning foundation and doing that in whichever way works for our kid at the time.”

The state estimates 135,749 students were home-schooled last school year. While that’s less than 8 percent of all the K-12 students statewide, more children are home-schooled than attend private schools or charter schools.

Historically, home-schooling has been dominated by religious families, particularly evangelical Christians.

In the 1988-89 school year, 78.3 percent of the state’s home schools registered with the state to operate as a religious school. That percentage had dropped to 58.5 percent religious and 41.5 percent secular in the 2017-18 school year.

It’s unclear what the percentage of secular home-schoolers is nationally. The Virginia-based Home School Legal Defense Association says North Carolina is one of the few states that asks home schools to identify as religious or secular.

For the first time two years ago, the number of new secular home-schoolers in North Carolina was greater than the number of religious home-schoolers. The state has added 6,386 independent home schools compared to 5,714 religious home schools over the past two school years.

Traditional public schools should ask why educational reasons and not religious reasons are motivating a growing number of parents to home-school their children, according to Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.

“The fact that we’re seeing a declining number of individuals home-schooling with a religious focus is part of a national trend and is indicative of parents who feel that traditional public school is not an environment conducive to learning and is not associated with the type of academic rigor they’d like their children to have,” Stoops said.

Parents cite a variety of reasons for why they chose the secular home-schooling route.

Kelly Hutzel, who lives on the Raleigh-Cary border, said she didn’t like how public schools focus so much on reading in the early elementary school grades. Hutzel, whose daughters are ages 7 and 4, said she prefers the Waldorf educational style that allows for more free play and creative time in kindergarten and first grade.

By home-schooling, Hutzel said she’s able to tailor her children’s education since she knows them the best.

“I realize she can’t read as much as other kids her age,” Hutzel said of her 7-year-old daughter. “But I see her as being more creative. She’s very much into dance and art.”

But Hutzel added that support groups such as Homeschool Explorers have helped as well. The group meets weekly so that the students can do a group activity and have social time interacting with other children.

Dee Fortson, who calls herself a secular atheist home-schooler, also turned to a secular support group, the Chapel Hill Homeschoolers, to help her family make the transition from public school.

Although the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system is regarded as among the best in the state, Fortson said that the district wasn’t providing all the services her academically gifted and dyslexic daughter Maya needed. Maya was a sixth-grade student in middle school when she switched to home-schooling last school year.

By home-schooling, Fortson said Maya has been able to switch from reading print material to doing 90 percent of her learning by listening to audio material. Fortson also pays for Maya to get small-group instruction for some courses.

Maya, 13, says she’s happier about learning now that she’s home-schooling. But she misses being with her friends at school.

“I feel like I am learning a lot more home schooling than I ever did in public school,” Maya said. “But I am missing that social aspect of public school. That is really important.”

Middle school is the point where Batts stopped home-schooling her two oldest children and sent them to public school. She’s still home-schooling her youngest son, who is 8.

Batts said she home-schools in elementary school because she doesn’t feel the environment where her kids would be sitting in one place for an extended period would work best for their learning styles. She’s able to vary the routine through home-schooling.

Batts said it’s gotten much easier to be a secular home-schooler now that it’s become more mainsteam, with more curricula options. In the past, it was more difficult finding non-Christian home-school material.

“You have a big community of other people,” Batts said. “It’s even easier to do home-schooling in an urban environment.

“I can go down to the science museum every day. I can talk to real scientists.”

Since 2010, the number of home schools has gone up 106 percent in Johnston County, 101 percent in Durham, 87 percent in Orange County and 84 percent in Wake County, It’s also increased 94 percent in Mecklenburg County.

But Stoops, of the Locke Foundation, also pointed to how home schools have increased sharply since 2010 in places such as Hoke, Harnett, Moore and Montgomery counties.

“It’s not just popular in urban areas where parents may have legitimate concerns,” Stoops said. “But rural areas are also increasingly seeing a substantial number of parents home-schooling their children.”

The growth in home-schooling in North Carolina is occurring at a time when enrollment has also been increasing in charter schools and private schools while dropping in traditional public schools. Nearly one in five North Carolina students are not attending a traditional public school.

“We’ve created a climate in North Carolina where there are more choices,” said Brian Jodice, a spokesman for Parents For Educational Freedom in North Carolina. “Many times parents feel they can provide the best education for their children at home.”