The Alternative to Learning Under the Gun

As school shootings continue unabated, more families are choosing homeschool instead. After all, homeschooled kids don’t just perform better — they also stay alive

“I sent my children to school. I sent my kids to school on Valentine’s Day,” Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, died in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, told WPTV last year. “Gotta get out the door. Gotta go to school. Go to school. Sent them out the door. Never in a million years as a parent do you think your kid is not coming home.”

Guttenberg is right, of course: Parents have the very reasonable expectation that their child will come home from school. But the reality, as it happened to Guttenberg and to hundreds of other American families, is that some kids don’t come home from school due to gun violence. In 2019, the Atlantic reported that in the year following the 2018 massacre in Parkland, Florida, gun violence had killed nearly 1,200 children in the U.S.

Beginning with Columbine in 1999, more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours,” the Washington Post reported in 2018. “This means that the number of children who have been shaken by gunfire in the places they go to learn exceeds the population of Eugene, Ore., or Fort Lauderdale, Fla.”

But while those figures are already high, it’s still a mere fraction of the estimated 3 million American children who are exposed to shootings — whether in school, their communities or homes — every year. Which is to say that no matter how hard a parent tries, there’s virtually no way to shield their kids at every angle from the perils in a country that, as a whole, is unwilling to accept that it has a gun problem.

This doesn’t mean that parents aren’t always going to try, however. “With the kids, every time I see a shooting I just thank God — I thank God I don’t have to send them out into a school and worry about them, and spend my day on tenterhooks: ‘Are they going to come home today?’” says Beth, 35, a mother who homeschools her two elementary-school-age kids in South Carolina. The worry doesn’t end there, though, as her husband is a public school teacher. “Thank God that he’s at the end of a corridor,” she says, referring to her husband’s classroom. Someone would have to be very intent on shooting him. He’s very well liked by all the students, I take a lot of comfort in that. Honestly, it’s something I think about on a regular basis. It terrifies me. He’ll tell me about a student or something, and I’m like, ‘Are they going to come in with a gun?’ When he talks about a disturbed student, that’s always my first question.”

Beth tells me that most of the other parents in her neighborhood are very cognizant of the school shootings, even the ones that have pro-gun bumper stickers designed to look like the Starbucks logo. “Even as pro-gun as a lot of these moms are, it’s still a huge worry,” she says. “They say they’re terrified of it, or they’ll make some comment about mental health or whatever. I find that incredibly offensive, as somebody who has dealt with mental health problems in the past, but I always kind of keep my mouth shut, because we’re dealing with moms and homeschool in South Carolina.”

Beth is hardly alone in taking the precautions that she has: Even in predominantly pro-gun states like hers, the number of kids being taken out of public schools and put into homeschools is on the rise. “The National Center for Education Statistics has found that the number of homeschooled students in the U.S. has increased from 850,000 in 1999 to 1,690,000 in 2016, meaning that the percentage of homeschooled students increased from 1.7 percent to 3.3 percent in that same time period,” reports StudyInternational.com. According to the National Home Education Research Institute, “while the overall school-age population in the United States grew by about 2 percent from spring 2012 to spring 2016, data from 16 states from all four major regions of the nation showed that homeschooling grew by an average of about 25 percent in those states.”

In other words, the prospect of a school shooting — especially in the wake of a school shooting — trails in the air regardless of the gun culture in your state. “We definitely get an increase in calls and I’m not sure it matters as much what state [the shooting] actually happened in,” says Jeremy Newman, the director of public policy and development at the Texas Homeschool Coalition. “Most of the time, the school shooting issue is one of several issues — sometimes, it’s even the most important issue for them. The data that we have on it indicates that as a primary reason for homeschooling, it usually sits maybe around the 10 percent mark. I assume it’s far greater because I hear from people all the time. It’s usually a little bit broader than just school shootings, it’s a general safety concern, [but] school shootings would be a big part of it.”

Christopher Chin, president of Homeschool Louisiana, a community of Christian Home Educators, says that in most cases, news of a school shooting is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back,” with regard to parents who are considering homeschooling. “It gets their interest,” says Chin. “In other words, it captures their attention and it makes those family members, the husband or wife or whatever parent, just say, ‘Hey, we really need to pause and take a look at, ‘Is this the route we want to keep going?’”

Other things that are often cited, according to Chin, are concerns about the curriculum or the school environment. “Beyond school shootings, the bullying that happens in the schools is off the charts,” he says. “And so that [bullying] is the No. 1 driver, from what we see.” 

Beth notes a similar sentiment in her community. “It’s on everybody’s list, but it’s generally not the top reason,” she says, referring to the main factors driving parents to homeschool their kids. “Our school system is so bad that usually we’re pulling out our kids because we can’t cope with South Carolina public schools any longer. But the moms who do always cite example after example and say, ‘I can’t imagine what those parents at X school [where the shooting occurred] went through.’ When you’re standing there and you’re waiting to see, is my kid going to come out of this damn building, or are the cops going to come up to me and say, ‘We need to talk to you’ — there’s so much fear there.”

Further helping pave the way for a potential migration from public schools to homeschools is that kids who are homeschooled almost always perform better on standardized tests, according to Newman. “Here in Texas, we spend like $10,000 per student in the public school system,” he says. “And by definition they score in the median of the top 50th percentile for standardized tests. For the homeschool community, we spend closer to an average of like $300 to $500 per student per year, and they score 30 to 35 points above average.”

So what, then, is stopping a mass public school exodus? According to Newman, the biggest barrier at this point is people feeling unable to handle the workload. “Some people also misunderstand the thread of resources available to them, because it’s not like in the 1980s when there was one textbook written by your neighbor and that was the only option you have,” he says. “There are infinite resources available to people now, and the community is large enough that you’d be hard-pressed to find a place where you don’t have people who live close to you who are doing the same thing and going through the same things.” 

In addition to the logistics, Newman cites finances as another hurdle for families that rely on two incomes. “It’s kind of like parenting full-time, so once people get into it, they realize it’s possible to create a routine that they can do, and that becomes normal life for them,” he says. “But they have to be willing to give up a second form of income. They have to be willing to give up some of their extra time and stuff like that.”

Still, there are other problems that come with the choice. Beth admits to having concerns with the role mass shootings have played in her decision: In particular, she knows that at some point she’ll have to explain why they’re being homeschooled in the first place. “It hasn’t happened yet,” she says. “I haven’t sat them down and said, ‘This is what Columbine was,’ or anything like that, because we do try to keep them calmer about life.” And frankly, when active shooter drills increasingly become the norm in public schools, keeping things “calmer” for as long as possible can only be seen as another positive attribute of homeschooling. But Beth is aware that as a parent, she can only elude the conversation about gun violence with her kids for so long. “They do have friends that go to school, and I don’t want them to worry about questions like, ‘Mama, is this going to happen here?’” she says. 

As for the public school system itself, as common as these conversations around school shootings have become, with more than 50 million kids to contend with, a 2 percent increase in homeschooling isn’t yet causing alarm. “My experience has been that public schools typically don’t go trying to recruit homeschool kids,” says Thomas Toch, an education policy expert. “Their mission is to educate those who walk in the door.”

In fact, according to Toch, public schools are far more focused on the proliferation of the charter school than they are with homeschooling. “In places where there’s a high percentage of charter school kids, the traditional districts do actively recruit students through ad campaigns on social media, trying to make the case for their school district. To give you an example, in the District of Columbia alone [which is where Toch lives], 47 percent of kids attend charter school.” 

For that reason, Toch says he doesn’t think that, in most places, the scale of homeschooling is sufficient to encourage districts to try to bring them back into the public school system. Instead, their biggest interaction with the homeschooling community is providing homeschool kids with services like athletics and subsidized school lunches. “Under federal policy, if low-income kids qualify, even the ones in homeschools are entitled to receive subsidized meals from the public school,” he says. “Local homeschool associations in some places negotiate with school districts on those things. If they have a kid who’s a very good basketball player, they might negotiate so that the homeschool kid can use the local high school gym.”

Ultimately, Toch tells me that people have claimed homeschooling numbers are inching up for a long time. “It’s still inches and not yards,” he says. “You’ll never get 20 percent of the entire public school population turning to homeschools, though you might get 20 percent in some communities.”

In all likelihood, Toch is right. As long as families that rely on dual incomes exist — and in 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that 60 percent of families with kids under the age of 18 rely on two incomes to survive — fear around school shootings simply hasn’t reached enough of a tipping point to compel the majority of parents to consider homeschooling as an alternative. 

But there’s no denying that, as gun violence in schools and writ large continues to plague this country, the parents in those communities that have been affected by it firsthand will have a tougher and tougher time outrunning this conversation. “I live two miles from the gun store where Dylann Roof, who shot up the Emanuel church in Charleston, bought his gun,” says Beth. “At least once a week this comes up as an actual conversation between my husband and me. 

“At least once a week.”