Aug 20, 2001

From the Archives

Home School Families Have Different Backgrounds Than Commonly Assumed

The quality of public school education has come under fire during the past decade, leading to a variety of public and private responses. One of the most dramatic reactions has been the increase in the number of home schooled children. Estimates suggest that nearly two million young people are currently home schooled, and that the number has been steadily climbing for more than a decade. A new study by the Barna Research Group, of Ventura, California, points out that the background of home school families is different than many people have assumed.

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Religious Background

It is widely held that conservative born again Christian households dominate home schooling. The Barna study did find that home school parents are almost twice as likely to be evangelical as is true within the general population. However, only 15% of home school parents are evangelicals (compared to 8% nationally). Ninety-one percent of home school parents describe themselves as Christian, but a surprisingly small proportion (just 49%) can be classified as born again Christians. In other words, a slight majority of the families who teach their children at home is not born again Christians (51%). The almost-even split between born again and non-born again parents in the home school camp may help to explain why they were no more likely than the population at-large to state that they are “absolutely committed to the Christian faith” – and why just 48% of all home schools parents made such a claim. Among the home school parents who described themselves as something other than Christian, 3% are Jewish, 3% are atheist, and the remaining 3% are associated with other faith groups.

(In the survey, people were not asked if they were born again, but were classified according to their answers to two questions concerning having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and their belief about what will happen to them after they die. For the explanation of how the survey measured “evangelicals” and “born again” Christians, see the Research Methodology section below.)

While home school parents were five times more likely to describe themselves as “mostly conservative” on political matters than as “mostly liberal,” the data indicate that only a little more than one-third of the home school parents (37%) adopt the “mostly conservative” label. Half of all home school parents said they are “somewhere in-between” being politically conservative and liberal.

Just as surprising is the revelation that home school parents are only slightly more likely than other adults to engage in religious activities during the course of a typical week. Home school adults had levels of church attendance, church volunteerism, prayer, Sunday school attendance, and personal devotional times that were statistically indistinguishable from national norms. They did have a higher incidence of Bible reading during the week and greater levels of involvement in a small group that meets outside of church during the week for religious purposes.

The theological perspectives of home school parents are, however, notably different than the national norm. Home school parents were more likely to contend that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches; to claim a personal responsibility to share their religious faith with non-believers; to consider their religious faith to be very important in their life; to deny that Jesus Christ committed sins while on Earth; and to have an orthodox view of God. Their views were similar to those of other Americans on the reality of Satan (most deny Satan exists) and regarding salvation by grace alone (half believe salvation can be earned through good works).

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Demographic Attributes

The dimension of home school households that most clearly differs from that of the nation relates to demographics. The most striking difference concerns racial and ethnic background. A majority of home school households are non-white, split evenly between Hispanic and black families. Whites, who constitute about two-thirds of American households, represent only 41% of home school households. Other demographic distinctions include the findings that home school parents are 39% less likely to be college graduates, 21% more likely to be married, and 28% less likely to have experienced a divorce. The household income of home school families is also 10% below the national average.

Home schooling is most concentrated in the Middle Atlantic, South Atlantic and Pacific regions. Those three geographic areas encompass 53% of all home school families. The Mountain states stood out as the region that was least likely to have home schooling, while the East South Central region – which includes Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama – was the region that had the highest likelihood of home school activity. That region contains 6% of the nation’s population, but 11% of all home school families.

Home School Lifestyles

Although the survey did not provide many lifestyle indicators for analysis, the few that were available shed light on the lives if these families. Compared to the national average, home school parents were more likely to say they were “stressed out,” “too busy,” and still trying to find a few good friends.” They were also less likely to be registered to vote.

The survey results found that two-thirds of all home school households have Internet access – the same proportion as among all U.S. homes.

Reflections on the Research

“Contrary to some analyses, the data show that home schooling has caught on with divergent population groups for a variety of reasons,” stated George Barna, whose company conducted the research. “It appears that there are three dominant forces in the home school movement. There is certainly the conservative evangelical niche that constitutes a small, but visible segment – perhaps one out of every seven home school households. There appear to be about twice as many home school families that are people of color – blacks, Hispanics, Asians – who have rejected traditional educational options. But nearly half of the home school contingent seems to be a group of politically moderate, family-oriented households with traditional values who engage in religious activity and accept many Christian principles, but are not driven by a compelling, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Barna anticipates continued growth in home schooling in the near future. “The political climate is increasingly amenable to home schooling as a legitimate educational alternative. Add to that the growing desire of millions of Americans to have a more significant family life and to maximize their children’s educational opportunities, and suddenly home schooling becomes a serious option for many. Recent reports showing that home school children typically do better than their peers on standardized achievement tests and that they have generally excelled in college will further diminish the fears that some parents have about going this route. If home schooling continues to expand at its current pace of growth, this alone could significantly reshape family relationships and lifestyles over the course of the next two decades.”

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Research Methodology

The data on home school parents comes from a combination of seven independent, national random samples of adults totaling 7043 interviews conducted by telephone between January 2000 and July 2001. Of those individuals, 3.3% were home school parents (n=234). The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the sample of home school parents is ±7 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Adults in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. adult population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults.

“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again” or if they considered themselves to be “born again.”

“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria described above, evangelicals also satisfy seven other conditions. Those include believing that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches; saying that their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not by works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical has no relationship to church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in Ventura, California. Since 1984 it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. This research was funded solely by Barna Research as part of its regular tracking of the social, religious and political state of the nation.

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A Comparison of the Religious Activity of Home School Adults and All U.S. Adults
(activity undertaken in the “last seven days”)
religious activityhome school parentsall adults
prayed to God89%82%
had a quiet/devotional time5552
attended a church service5043
read from the Bible (other than while at a church)5038
attended a small group that meets regularly for Bible study, prayer or Christian fellowship, other than a Sunday school or 12-step group3218
volunteered at a church2624
attended a Sunday school class2119
sample size2347,043

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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