State funding for homeschooling is on the rise. Not everyone wants it.

Stephanie Hughes Mar 29, 2023
Heard on:
Anna Fulbright (right) instructs her daughter, 10-year-old Natalie Fulbright, on how to make a geographical landscape with Play-Doh. Stephanie Hughes / Marketplace

State funding for homeschooling is on the rise. Not everyone wants it.

Stephanie Hughes Mar 29, 2023
Heard on:
Anna Fulbright (right) instructs her daughter, 10-year-old Natalie Fulbright, on how to make a geographical landscape with Play-Doh. Stephanie Hughes / Marketplace

Homeschool enrollment increased by 30% in the U.S. following the onset of the pandemic, according to new research from Stanford and the Associated Press. Meanwhile, a growing number of states are passing laws that allow families to use public money to cover the costs of a home education. That’s spurring debate among homeschooling families around the country. 

One family that recently made the switch: the Fulbrights. They live in Maryland, a state that does not offer public funding for homeschoolers. In their home in Columbia, the dining area doubles as a classroom. Bright light comes through the windows as Anna Fulbright gets her kids’ geography lesson underway. She points to different land and water features on a map.

“This is the Gulf of Mexico, and then we have the Persian Gulf right here. So what do you notice about them?” asked Fulbright.

“One of them looks like a jellyfish, kind of,” responded Harry Fulbright.

“Okay,” laughed Anna. “But look, this one is surrounded by land, a lot of it, but there’s an outlet for it. And it’s the same for this one.” 

She’s teaching Harry, who’s six, and Natalie, who’s ten. After the discussion (which stems from landforms mentioned in a book they’re reading called “Grandfather’s Journey”) Anna pulls out Play-Doh to let the kids make their own geographical landscapes.

“Want to make a mountain?” she asked Natalie. “Actually, an ocean,” Natalie responded, who then used different colors to mold an ocean, a canyon and a lake. 

The kids had been in the local public school, but Natalie has Down syndrome, which affects her fine motor skills. When her school went totally virtual, it was hard for her to use the online tools, like a digital abacus. 

“So, sometimes I had to have her tell me what to do, and I would move the things on this online abacus for her,” said Anna Fulbright. “She really was not happy with it.”

So, in fall 2020, Fulbright started teaching the kids herself. She’s a scientist who used to work for a biotech company. She’s been a full-time parent since her oldest son was born. Members of her church were homeschooling already, so she had some idea of how to move forward.

“I’m not naturally a patient person. I never would have considered teaching elementary school as a career, for sure,” said Fulbright. “But I love my children, and I want them to learn, and make it a positive experience, and I have to remember that.”

In Maryland, eight subjects are mandatory for homeschoolers: ones you’d expect like English, math, phys ed. Twice a year, Fulbright meets with a local official to show samples of the kids’ work, but she’s not required to submit grades or curriculum. The one she uses is Christian and includes lessons in Latin and philosophy as the kids get older.

Today, her eldest child, 12-year-old Logan, is spending the day at a homeschool co-op, which uses the same Christian curriculum from a company called Classical Conversations. The kids go about once a week to see other students and learn from other homeschooling parents.

One of the co-op’s directors (and a homeschooling parent herself) is Leanne McNamee. She says the community has grown from 18 students since it started nearly a decade ago to more than 100 now. 

“Because it’s not weird anymore. When I started, it was like, home school, who’s that?” said McNamee.

There’s actually not a lot of data about who, according to Stanford education professor Thomas Dee, who authored the research on the recent increase. 

6-year-old Harry Fulbright makes his own landscape out of play dough. Stephanie Hughes / Marketplace

“We know far too little about, in particular, the homeschooling that many families took up during the pandemic,” said Dee. 

There is a movement to support these families financially. At least twelve states now have laws in place that provide funding for home education expenses, and several others are considering legislation. The amounts differ, up to $9,000 annually. The legislation usually details what’s considered an eligible expense and what’s not. 

“At least two of them specifically mentioned that a home theater is not considered an eligible expense,” said Emily Ronco with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Anna Fulbright has spent about $3,700 on homeschooling this school year. That includes books, curriculum, and co-op and Classical Conversations tuition, which costs about $1,500 for her older son, and about a third of that for each of the younger kids. She says many of those purchases will last multiple years, and stresses that not every family needs to spend as much to successfully homeschool.

“There’s definitely ways to make it significantly cheaper than that,” said Fulbright, who mentions that there’s a consignment market for books and materials. 

Again, Maryland does not allocate public money for homeschooling, and co-op director and parent Leanne McNamee said she’d be wary of taking public funds, even if they were an option.

“We believe that the minute you start taking government money, then eventually they’re going to start telling you what to do,” said McNamee.

Independence is a big theme at the co-op, generally, down to what subjects the kids study when. This morning, 12-year-old Logan Fulbright’s class has asked to work on cartography. The kids are drawing a map of northern Africa, freehand.

And when he’s not at the co-op, Logan does a lot of work on his own, a kind of project management. 

“I have a planner. So, later today, I’m going to plan out my week. And I get to choose how much of what I do each day,” said Logan. 

12-year-old Logan Fulbright draws a map freehand as part of his geography lesson. Stephanie Hughes / Marketplace

Homeschooling seems to be working well for the Fulbright family. But we don’t know much about families where the kids aren’t learning as well.

“Because they’re outside every sort of normal system,” said Stanford education professor Thomas Dee. “And that exact question is one we’ll have to struggle with: what is society’s responsibility to monitor the well-being and development of these children?”

Especially as society provides more money to fund those children’s lessons at home.

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