Homeschooling in the United States
Homeschooling, as the term is used in this article, refers to that aspect of home education (education or learning which takes place outside formal institutional structures or settings such as schools) which is designed to meet the educational needs of young school-age children and to satisfy the requirements of state compulsory education statutes. In this sense, the term homeschooling also includes unschooling.
Education in the home has long been an important component of learning and child rearing in the United States. In the early years of the American Republic and throughout the first half of the nineteenth century formal schooling, for a large part of the population, meant instruction only in basic literacy and elementary arithmetic skills in tuition-based schools which were variously and sometimes intermittently operated. School terms were for the most part short and seasonal (approximately 10-12 weeks during the winter months) after which the children were typically needed on the farm. School education, for most, was a matter of 3 or 4 years duration. Teaching was not a year round occupation, and teachers were often itinerant.
With the advent of free public schools (called common schools in the early days) beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the situation changed. State compulsory education statutes were enacted, the school year was extended, and a full time teaching profession with professional certification emerged. By the 1960s, education through the high school years in the United States was free, virtually universal, and took place in institutional settings (schools). Homeschooling, as the term is used today, was not considered legal and was essentially non-existent.
In the 1970s, a movement began to take back from the schools the traditional role of the family in the education of the young and the term homeschooling (also called unschooling by some) was coined to describe this movement. Initially confined to a very small part of the overall population, and based in the main on a religious foundation, the movement has since gained widespread legal recognition and spread to several million people while at the same time branching out beyond its initial religious base.
There are homeschoolers in all 50 states of the union legally pursuing this educational option. Beyond that, they exhibit a wide range of educational approaches and objectives while complying with as wide a range of legal requirements.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never issued a ruling specifically and directly concerned with homeschooling. However, there have been a number of cases in which basic principles have been asserted which are of clear relevance to homeschooling.
Most of these cases deal with the rights of parents vis-a-vis the state and are based on the due process clause of the Fourteenth amendemnt to the U.S. Constitution. That clause states that "No State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". While the Court has never defined the liberty thus protected, in Meyer v. Nebraska they stated: "Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint, but also the right of the individual . . . to marry, establish a home, and bring up children . . . " (262 U.S. 399).
State legislative treatment
In the realm of legislation, there is no federal law regarding homeschooling. Instead, such matters are left up to the laws of the individual states as implemented by local school districts. In general, there is considerable variation from one state to another in how homeschooling is governed and treated, with varying degrees of latitude and strictness.
Every state in the union has established a system of public schools. Together with that, all states have a compulsory education statute governing children between the ages of about 6 or 7 up to between 16 and 18 years of age, the exact ages varying from state to state within those limits. These compulsory education statutes specify that the affected children must be enrolled in a public school unless they meet certain specified exemptions, such as enrollment in a recognized private school.
In most states, homeschooling is explicitly recognized as one of the allowable exemtions under a separate homeschool or home education statute.
In some other states, homeschooling is explicitly covereed under the statutes dealing with the private school exemption. That is, the homeschool situtation is considered to be a type of private school.
Among the matters dealt with variously by the states are registration and reporting requirements, qualifications of instructors (parents), curricula, testing and certification, and access to public school facilities (including extra-curricular activities such as sports).