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Why Have Homeschooling Numbers Flattened Out After a Decade of Growth?

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After doubling over the last decade, the number of home schooled students in the United States appears to have leveled off, according to federal data.

That could be the product of more school choices—such as charter schools and private school vouchers—coming online.

From 1999 to 2012, the proportion of homeschooling students ballooned from 1.7 percent of all students to 3.4 percent, according to survey data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

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But by 2016, that growth had stalled, and the number of homeschoolers has remained basically the same: 1.7 million students nationwide, or 3.3 percent of the overall K-12 student population. (That number is likely an underestimate, because it's very hard to count home schoolers.)

What could have caused this tapering off? We can't know for sure, but Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at Indiana University who has studied home schoolers for a couple of decades, says there may be several factors at play.

For one, the conservative Christian home schooling movement isn't as concentrated on growth as it once was, said Lubienski.

"Instead, you're seeing movements more about re-entrenchment and focusing on the rights of current home schoolers," he said. "They're happy to see it spread but they're not as focused on doing that."

Families who may consider home schooling also have more options to choose from than they did in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s. In addition to charter schools, many states now offer publicly funded tuition vouchers and other kinds of financial aid to help eligible families attend private school.

And, although Lubienski says this is speculation on his part, the economic downturn may have also played a role in stalling the growth of homeschooling. During the great recession, it may have been financially unfeasible for one parent to stay home to teach the children.

Finally, the home schooling movement may have simply reached a ceiling.

"A lot of these movements just reach a natural plateau," said Lubienski. "It only appeals to certain families. Once all those families are involved, you've reached a point of saturation and growth becomes harder then."

Once a fringe movement that was outlawed in a number of states, the idea has become more mainstream even if the total population of home schoolers remains small.

A recent survey by Stanford University found that 45 percent of Americans support home schooling, while 34 percent oppose it.

However, we don't know how those numbers have changed over time because this was the first year that pollsters asked participants for their opinion on homeschooling.

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