Internet Helps Home Schooling Become a $600 Million Business
The Internet is providing a common marketplace for home-school parents who traditionally have been an unorganized group, said Scott Somerville, a legal and marketing adviser at the HSLDA, Purcellville, VA, which serves as a watchdog organization for home-schooled families. These unfavorable conditions, as well as legal factors, have made the home-school market "a riddle to reach."
Many parents of the estimated 1.5 million home-schooled children keep their teachings secret because they are violating state curriculum laws. This inhibits market research on the group, Somerville said, and has largely forced home-school parents out of the reach of mainstream and home-school niche textbook sellers.
"We're still in a transition period from where home schooling is perceived as a criminal act to where it's perceived as a viable market," said Somerville, who noted that home schooling was illegal in New York state until 1987.
Religion-based Web site Crosswalk.com features a home-school channel and reported 15 million page impressions in September, Somerville said, but it's unclear how many home-school families are online because of the difficulty in researching the market. Before getting Internet access, alternative textbook vendors and parents traveled considerable distances to state home-school conventions. Sellers could only sell and brand their company's name and products at such events. Many of those dealers now have Web sites and "don't have to drive to all 50 conventions to make sales," Somerville said. "I think the community is spreading nationally because more ideas about home schooling are being shared [online]."
Green Leaf Press co-founders and home schoolers Rob and Cyndy Shearer started a home-school retail company in 1992 in their home because they were frustrated with the availability of pre-15th century history books for their children. Online since 1995, their Lebanon, TN-based firm now sells more than $1 million worth of history books to home-school families.
"The hobby ate the house," Rob Shearer said. "The Internet has definitely helped that process along as more home-school families have gotten online."
The brunt of Green Leaf Press' revenue derives from 100,000 customers on its catalog mailing list, but online sales are growing, and contributed 30 percent of the revenue last year. Rob Shearer said his Web site, www.greenleafpress.com, has 4,000 e-mail newsletter members who receive his weekly book reviews.
Somerville said Christian fundamentalists and opponents of capitalism and technology have historically made up the home-school population. However, socially disgruntled parents and religiously concerned Catholic families were home schooling at the most increasing rates. "Since these seem to be parents who are purchasing computers right now," he said, "the Internet will probably be the best bet to finding home-school parents."