In the fall of 2016, Jessica Coakley became increasingly concerned that her son, Braden, was falling behind in school. The fourth grader had an Individualized Education Program, requiring certain services for students like him with different learning needs.
But his mother worried it was not enough.
“I was feeling like the teachers and the principals and the people weren’t listening to me,” said Coakley, who lives in Bradley, just north of Bangor. “I would go to these IEP meetings and I’d be crying when I’d leave because I just felt so frustrated.”
When her son’s state test scores came back, they showed he was testing at a first-grade level — three years behind where he should have been, Coakley said. His self-esteem was suffering.
Left with dwindling options, Coakley, who had gone to school herself for a year and a half to become a teacher, decided to teach him at home. Although she was skeptical and scared, she remembers thinking to herself, “All right, well, I can’t do any worse.”
Thousands of families are making the same choice in Maine and around the country, leading to a sharp increase in homeschooling that skyrocketed during the pandemic and has remained a popular option.
In the 2019-20 school year, just under 6,800 students were homeschooled in Maine. The following year, that number almost doubled to 12,048.
While the population of homeschooled students has declined year-over-year since then, state records show that this past school year there were still about 10,100 students learning from home — a 50% increase from 2019-20. Because of a shift in the way this information is tracked, accurate data from before that year is not available.
In just under a quarter of districts across the state, there are now more students being homeschooled than there were in the 2020-21 year, during the height of the pandemic-era increase.
Experts, parents and advocates cite a number of reasons for the dramatic increase. Like the Coakleys, some families have pulled their kids with disabilities because they worry their needs aren’t being met. Others have religious or moral objections to material taught in public schools.
Maine’s rural landscape means that for some students, there isn’t a lot of choice: It’s the local public school or homeschool. For still others, in-person schooling feels untenable because of bullying or social anxiety.
State officials hope more students return to the classroom.
“Public schools are critical to our democracy,” said Marcus Mrowka, Director of Communications at the Maine DOE, “and a way that kids can come together and learn the skills that they need to thrive. So we would hope that more parents would choose to send their kids back to public schools in the years ahead, and we are providing those supports to schools and to educators in order to make Maine public schools the best places they can be for schools.”
Experts say for at least some families, the pandemic showed them for the first time that they could homeschool.
“In the nearer term, what we see are families who maybe never considered homeschooling in the past,” said Heath Brown, associate professor of public policy at City University of New York, John Jay College, and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of Homeschooling the Right: How Conservative Education Activism Erodes the State. But, “because of the pandemic they were compelled to experience it, and some felt like it was an approach to education they preferred.”
Brown pointed to shifts in technology, such as the availability of online curriculum, that made homeschooling more accessible, academically and financially. Thus, today’s homeschooling population is far more diverse racially, ethnically, and along class lines than it was historically. He also noted changes in state laws that made it easier for families to pursue this option.
“Homeschooling organizations have been very effective, especially at the state level, for pushing for more lenient laws, laws that make it easier to homeschool,” he said. “As a result, homeschooling has become quite attractive to many families.”
He categorized Maine homeschooling laws as “middle of the pack,” neither the most lenient nor the most restrictive in the country.
Here’s how it works: Within 10 calendar days of beginning home instruction, Maine parents or guardians must provide the school system with a written notice of intent. They pledge to provide at least 175 days of instruction in specific subject areas, including English, social studies and library skills. And at the end of each school year, they choose from a list of assessments to demonstrate their child’s academic progress.
Jay Robinson, superintendent of MSAD 72, based in Fryeburg, said the vast majority of homeschooling parents in his district opt to have a certified teacher review a portfolio of their child’s work when the school year wraps up.
Before the pandemic, Robinson said, about 75 students of the approximately 1,500 in his district were turning to home instruction. Once the pandemic hit, that almost doubled to about 130, where it’s hovered since.
As his district shifted back to in-person learning, Robinson heard from parents worried their kids would bring the virus home to at-risk family members. He believes this drove most of the homeschooling spike, although the numbers still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. He also wonders if the rise of the culture wars and book bans might be playing a role in a parent’s choice to homeschool, although he had not heard that in his own district.
Angela Grimberg, executive director of Coalition for Responsible Home Education, said her organization has incorporated an annual review process into its model legislation, arguing that all states should have one. Nationwide, she’s concerned there is not enough accountability surrounding homeschooling.
“We’re seeing that across the states, they are still trying to deregulate homeschooling,” Grimberg said, “even as prior policies weren’t enough to protect these children.”
The most severe cases, she said, can lead to severe abuse and neglect, and deregulation can also lead to an inadequate education. She noted this is not typical of most homeschool parents, but hopes to “protect what’s valuable about homeschooling while mitigating the risks for severe outcomes.”
When homeschooling is done responsibly, Grimberg said, it can be immensely beneficial, especially for students with disabilities and those facing discrimination.
Maine law dictates that home instruction students are eligible to receive special education and related services at their local public school. They may also enroll in and audit some public school classes as well as extracurricular activities. School districts are then eligible for funding to support students receiving on-site instruction.
Robinson, the superintendent, said educators in his district maintain relationships with families who don’t want to partake in the whole school program but still want their kids present for extracurricular activities and upper-level academic classes.
Trish Hutchins, regional representative for Homeschoolers of Maine, a statewide, ministry-based organization, said access to these supports varies by district. Largely it is “welcomed and encouraged.”
During the pandemic, Hutchins said, parents of students with special needs found themselves implementing their kids’ IEPs at home. While schools can be limited by staff and funding, she said, at home these students may receive closer attention and custom-designed curriculum.
Jake Langlais, the superintendent of Lewiston Public Schools, worries that academic needs are not always met in this context. He is concerned that there are a number of students being homeschooled who are “getting no education whatsoever.”
In the 2021-22 school year, there were 5,182 students in Lewiston public schools. That same year, around 220 students received home instruction, more than double the number in the 2019-20 year. By this past school year, about 170 students continued to learn from home.
While recognizing there’s “fantastic” homeschooling across the state, he also noted, “there are so many benefits — so, so many benefits — to public school (that you) can’t fabricate in a homeschool.” He pointed to unique skills and socialization students receive in a school building.
“There’s a lot of ways you can build up resiliency and routine in a school that are harder to create outside of school,” he said.
A rise in homeschooling can also impact school funding.
“If my enrollment is down 100 students — because of homeschooling or private schooling — that has serious impacts,” he said, especially in smaller districts.
The Covid Surge
When Jessica Coakley, the mom from Bradley, decided to shift her son to homeschooling in 2016, she scoured the internet for resources. She quickly realized they were spread out and challenging to aggregate. So she created a Facebook page, “Homeschooling in ME,” to help other parents and guardians.
“I started the page with the hope that we could start this small community,” Coakley said.
The group grew slowly to about 300 members. Coakley liked the sense of community it provided. Parents traded tips about science curriculum, the best resources from Khan Academy, which creates online educational tools, and where to locate textbooks on Ebay.
When the pandemic hit, the small community quickly grew. Coakley saw another uptick after the implementation of vaccine mandates. Now the page is home to over 3,000 members.
Hutchins, the Homeschoolers of Maine representative, saw a similar spike. Occasionally before the pandemic, she would receive calls from families in crisis who needed to abruptly shift to homeschooling. But when 2020 hit, she said, suddenly that was happening all the time. She was in constant crisis management.
Coakley said today she hears from a whole range of parents who decided to homeschool their kids. A sizable minority of the posts she sees in her group are from parents of kids with special needs or facing discrimination.
“There are thousands of reasons why people homeschool in Maine,” Coakley said. “It’s incredible. I think that’s the craziest thing about this community is that we all homeschool our kids, but we all do it for entirely different reasons.”
She said the increase in homeschooling generally has helped shatter preconceived notions about who homeschools and why. Many of these stereotypes initially made her hesitant as well. “When I was mulling over my decision,” she said, “I was scared I was going to ruin his life.”
But instead, the time at home gave Coakley’s son an opportunity to catch up academically and build his confidence. He learned math skills through cooking classes and took piano lessons. It was a challenging first year, but by his fourth year at home he was doing well.
Before eighth grade, Coakley told his mother that he was ready to return to the traditional classroom. She was nervous but agreed. His initial transition back was an adjustment because he learned to take all of his classes on the computer. But his teachers were supportive and he loved being back in the classroom.
This fall, Coakley will enter his sophomore year of high school. Ultimately, his mother said, being at home and learning in a small environment gave him the tools to return and thrive.
“I’m super proud,” she said. “Look what we did. We did this together.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to make clear that the Coalition for Responsible Home Education’s annual review policy is not specifically modeled after Maine’s.