Compulsory Education

AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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What are Compulsory Attendance Laws?

Compulsory attendance laws are statutes put into force by state governments that require parents to have their children go to a public or state accredited private or parochial school for a designated period. Each state by law determines when this period starts and ends. Almost all states require a child to begin attending school at an age ranging from five to seven years. The age when a child may stop going to school varies from sixteen to eighteen.

To learn about the age requirements for your state, look in the telephone directory under the listing for state government agencies for either the department or board of education or the office or department of public instruction.

History and Development of Compulsory Attendance Laws

Modern compulsory attendance laws were first enacted in Massachusetts in 1853 followed by New

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York in 1854. By 1918, all states had compulsory attendance laws. One reason for the acceptance by the states of these laws was the belief that the public school was the best means to improve the literacy rate of the poor and to help assimilate an immigrant population that grew at a high rate between the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Another explanation is that as children were required to attend school for a number of years, factory owners found it more difficult to exploit the cheap and plentiful child labor. This argument is substantiated by Alabama's decision for a period of time to repeal its compulsory attendance law due to pressure put upon state authorities by a company opening a large textile mill in that state. This industry was notorious for its use of child labor.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

Failure to comply is a misdemeanor in almost every state. The penalties include fines for the first offense ranging from $20 to $100 and increasing thereafter for subsequent offenses from $250 to $1000 depending upon the jurisdiction. Most states also have the option of sentencing parents for as long as 30 days in jail. Some states provide for alternatives such as community service or counseling. In the case of home schooling, although the prosecution is not required to show the parent intended to break the law, it must still prove in some jurisdictions that home education does not provide an adequate alternative.

Statutory Exemptions from Compulsory Attendance Laws
Child's Circumstances

Most states will not enforce these laws against parents whose children are physically or mentally disabled, are employed, or have received a designated education level, typically a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Equivalent Education

Equivalent Education may be obtained in a state accredited private school or a parochial school. According to a ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court in Pierce v Society of Sisters, states must recognize these schools as providing an education equivalent to that of the public schools so long as they follow state laws and regulations that bear a reasonable relationship to the interest the state has in educating its citizens and do not burden the religious practices of the parochial schools. These conditions placed upon non-public schools, including home schools, are permitted under the United States Constitution because the public schools must follow these regulations as well.

All non-public schools must qualify under the laws of that state as schools in order to be considered capable of providing an equivalent education. The criteria used include such factors as whether the school is established, the quality of the teaching, the soundness of the curriculum, how many hours per day are spent for instruction, how many days of the year the school is engaged in teaching, and whether the teachers are certified. A private, parochial, and home schools may have to comply with any combination of the above factors.

Court Case Exemptions from Compulsory Attendance Laws

Exemptions Accepted by Some Courts

A threat to the health, safety, or welfare of a student if the parents can show the threat is imminent.

The child has reached the age of majority.

The child becomes mentally or physically disabled. However, this ground is now used less frequently because of special services for the disabled mandated by federal law.

The parent objects to classes because the content violates their religious beliefs or practices.

Either hazardous conditions are present between the child's home and his designated public school or the distance between the student's home and the school exceeds a distance provided by statute.

Exemptions Rejected by Some Courts

A parent's belief a given teacher is incompetent or otherwise not qualified to teach.

A parent's belief the school is doing a poor job of educating his or her children.

Objections to racial integration by the parents on religious grounds.

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Early United States Supreme Court Challenges
Meyer v Nebraska (1923)

This decision struck down a state law prohibiting any instructor, either in a public or a private school, from teaching in a language other than English. The Court took this action because of the arbitrary interference from state officials of the right of parents to provide education for their children as they saw fit. The statute was arbitrary because it bore no relationship to a legitimate state purpose and violated the part of the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that says no person may be deprived of liberty without due process of law. In this case, the right of the parents to employ a teacher to instruct their children in their native language fell under the right to determine how they were to be educated.

Pierce v Society of Sisters (1925)

In this case, the Court said an Oregon law was unconstitutional which made it mandatory for parents to send their children to public school. As in Meyer, this law was unrelated to the legitimate state goal of educating children because it interfered with the fundamental right of parents to exercise control over how their children were to be taught. Forcing parents to have the educational options for their children limited to public schools infringed upon the above right and was an abuse of the state's police power to insure the health, safety, and morality of all localities in that jurisdiction. This standardization went against the sentiment of the Court often quoted in the part of their opinion that declares a child is not the creature of the state and that the responsibility for educating children should rest with the parents.

This decision is also important because it made clear that state governments had to permit private schools to operate. No challenge has since been made on this point.

Farrington v Tokushige (1927)

The Hawaii legislature had passed a law strictly regulating hours, textbooks, and curriculum of schools that taught in the native language of the students. In striking down this law, the Court was indicating that this amount...

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