In the 1980s, when newspapers and magazines first started reporting on parents who had rejected school in favor of teaching their children at home, it seemed that the movement would never last—or if it lasted, would never grow. More and more mothers were working outside the home. More and more parents, especially in the upper middle class, were fretting about their children's pursuit of academic excellence and healthy socialization, while simultaneously outsourcing the management of both to recognized experts and paid caregivers. It did not seem an auspicious time for a movement that demanded the intensive labor of mothers willing to forgo careers and income; that set little store by certification, licensing, degrees, and other signifiers of professional expertise; that took pride in a kind of rustic do-it-yourselfism; and that, even in its large, conservative Christian wing, held fast to the progressive-educational notion of not rushing kids into academics too early. Like so many other self-conscious reversions to the way of our forebears, the home-schooling movement seemed destined to sputter out.
Instead it has developed over the past decade or so into a surprisingly vigorous counterculture. In 1985 about 50,000 children nationwide were learning at home. Current estimates range from 1.5 to 1.9 million. (The former is probably the more reliable number, though precision is hard to come by because neither the census nor any other national survey distinguishes between home-schooled children and others.) By comparison, charter schools—the most celebrated alternative in public schooling—enroll only about 350,000 students. Patricia Lines, a former Department of Education researcher who has studied home schooling since the mid-1980s, points to evidence, such as Florida's annual survey of home schoolers, suggesting that the population of kids learning at home is growing by 15 to 20 percent a year. Moreover, home schoolers as a group are extraordinarily committed—not only to educating their children as they see fit but also to building and sustaining organizations. They have founded thousands of local support groups across the country, along with an influential lobbying and legal-defense organization, dozens of publishers and curriculum suppliers, and six nationally circulated magazines. By now it seems reasonable to agree with Lines that "the rise of homeschooling is one of the most significant social trends of the past half century."