Compulsory School Attendance

views updated May 29 2018


The term compulsory attendance refers to state legislative mandates for attendance in public schools (or authorized alternatives) by children within certain age ranges for specific periods of time within the year. Components of compulsory attendance laws include admission and exit ages, length of the school year, enrollment requirements, alternatives, waivers and exemptions, enforcement, and truancy provisions.

Compulsory age requirements vary by state. Data collected by the Education Commission of the States in March 2000 indicate that the earliest age for compulsory attendance is five, with a range to seven, and the upper age limit varies from sixteen to eighteen. Withdrawal from school prior to the age limit is permissible in some states, provided certain conditions are met. State policies setting the length of the school year differ as well. The 2000 Council of Chief State School Officers Policies and Practices Survey indicates that state requirements for the number of school days range from 175 to 186, with variations on exceptions, minimum hours, and start dates.

Enforcement of compulsory attendance laws is usually accomplished through local school attendance officers, superintendents, law enforcement officers, and municipal or juvenile domestic relations courts. Parents, or those persons with legal custody, are held responsible for school attendance in every state. Penalties for noncompliance can include fines and jail sentences, but these are not usually imposed until administrative measures prove unsuccessful. Consequences for students vary but include removal from regular classrooms and placement in alternative programs and denial of driving privileges. In some states, criminal penalties exist for contributing to truancy.

The authority for compulsory attendance laws has been defined through courts of law as a valid use of the police power of the state provided by the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) describes the police power of states as "founded on the right of the State to protect its citizens, to provide for their welfare and progress and to insure the good of society" (Gee and Sperry, p. C-19).

Development of Compulsory School Attendance Philosophy and Laws

The authority of a state to mandate that parents send children to school has not always been endorsed or recognized in the United States. Parental provision of instruction for children originated with the English poor laws of the sixteenth century, which required vocational training for destitute youth. Schools were organized in connection with poor-houses and workhouses for training the inhabitants' children.

In colonial America, the earliest educational laws required training in skills and trades through apprenticeships for orphans and needy childrena large population due to the immigration of youth as indentured servants. By the mid-eighteenth century, laws had been expanded to include training in reading and writing. Teaching children the fundamental skill of reading enabled religious instruction and reading of the Bible.

The first compulsory education law in America was enacted in 1642 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This law required parents to provide an understanding of the principles of religion to children under their care, as well as an education in reading, writing, and a trade. Other New England colonies adopted similar laws between 1642 and 1671, but the southern colonies did not enact laws for apprenticed children until 1705.

Early laws were driven by the need for individuals to understand religious principles and moral concepts and to meet the expectations of their station as citizens. They provided the foundation for governmental action to require education, even if it was seen as more of a private responsibility than a public one. The concept of freedom of children from work while attending school was not included, and would not be until the nineteenth century.

Interest and support for compulsory education declined during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries due to several factors, including movement from towns into the frontier, the need for children to work at home, difficulty in enforcement, and less emphasis on religion. After the American Revolution, new reasons for interest in an educated citizenry appeared, based on democratic ideals, religious tolerance, and the integration of immigrants into the mainstream of American society.

In 1852 the state of Massachusetts passed a weak law to require attendance in schools. The Massachusetts School Attendance Act of 1852 specified that children between the ages of eight and fourteen had to attend school for twelve weeks per year, six of which had to be consecutive if the school remained open for that time. Although unclear and ill-defined, exemptions were included in the law, as were penalties for enforcement.

Early compulsory attendance laws provided for a minimum time that children had to attend school before they could be lawfully employed, usually three months, but enforcement was lax. The South lagged behind, and many of the laws of the southern states left enforcement and practice to localities. The early laws were vague, and parents who needed children at home to help earn a living resisted.

By 1900 court cases had affirmed state enforcement of compulsory attendance laws based on the benefit to the child and the welfare and safety of the state and community. In 1901 the authority to mandate school attendance was expressed in the Indiana Supreme Court opinion for State v. Bailey. The finding stated that "the welfare of the child and the best interests of society require that the state shall exert its sovereign authority to secure to the child the opportunity to acquire an education" (Hudgins and Vacca, p. 275). In the 1944 case of Prince v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court declared: "Acting to guard the general interest in youth's well being, the state as parens patriae may restrict the parent's control by requiring school attendance, regulating or prohibiting the child's labor, and in many other ways" (Gee and Sperry, p C-20).

Lawrence Kotin and William Aiken, in their book Legal Foundations of Compulsory School Attendance (1980), cite several conditions in the labor sector that reinforced the sentiment for compulsory attendance in schools. The need for a general education for children was reinforced by the need to protect children from abuse in the workplace (as expressed through child labor laws). In addition, the need for skilled and literate workers increased as the industrial age unfolded. Working children provided competition for employment in unskilled jobs that adults needed, providing another factor for wanting children to be in school. An alignment of labor leaders and advocates of self-sufficiency and improvement in the human condition created a demand for longer years in school and school attendance.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that school attendance rates in 1900 were significantly raised in those states that combined compulsory school attendance with child labor laws. By the second decade of the twentieth century, a majority of states had specific child labor laws that set the minimum age for employment at fourteen and included specification of the completion of school grades and other educational requirements.

Exemptions and Alternatives

The expansion of learning arrangements recognized by state law as alternatives to attendance in public schools has evolved through case law. According to Gee and Sperry, compulsory attendance laws must meet the demands of reasonableness. This term was defined in the U.S. Supreme Court case Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925). In this case, the state of Oregon required that children within the age ranges of the compulsory attendance law attend public school only, or their parents would be guilty of a misdemeanor. The Court ruled in favor of the operators of a private school that challenged the state law, finding the statute unconstitutional on the basis of violating the fourteenth amendment rights of the parents and the property rights of schools. The court supported compulsory attendance but not the concept that compliance could only be achieved through public schools. Private schools were an alternative.

The right of parents to provide an alternative to public or private schooling to honor and preserve religious convictions was established through the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). Members of the Old Order Amish Religions objected to formal public schooling beyond the eighth grade because it presented and reinforced values that were in opposition to beliefs of the Amish community. The Amish had experienced conflict with state authorities over compulsory school attendance over the years, but, instead of litigation, would pay fines, be subjected to short-term jailings, or move.

Amish parents Jonas Yoder and Adin Yutzy appealed the decision of the Wisconsin Circuit Court that convicted them for violating Wisconsin's mandate for school attendance until the age of sixteen. The state of Wisconsin justified the conviction based on the need to preserve the political system, ensure economic survival, and provide for the socialization of children. A basic education, the state declared, included the ability to read and reason in order to evaluate issues and exercise citizens' rights such as voting. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower court ruling. The court found that the Amish alternative to formal secondary school education could convey "the social and political responsibilities of citizenship without compelled attendance beyond the eighth grade at the price of jeopardizing their free exercise of religious belief" (Gee and Sperry, p. 23).

The United States Supreme Court upheld this decision in 1972, with Chief Justice Warren Burger ruling: "A State's interest in universal education is not totally free from a balancing process when it impinges on other fundamental rights and interests, such as those specifically protected by the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment and the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children" (Keim, p. 98).

State compulsory attendance statutes have been amended to provide for students attending alternative education programs, as well as for various waivers and exemptions. For example, the Code of Virginia states that requirements for compulsory attendance may be satisfied by sending a child to an alternative program of study or work-study offered through a public, private, denominational, or parochial school, or by a public or private degree-granting institution of higher education. A local school board must excuse from school attendance any pupil who, with his or her parents, is conscientiously opposed to attendance due to religious training or belief. Also mandated is release from attendance by local school boards for verified medical reasons or for personal safety as determined by a juvenile and domestic-relations district court.

Virginia law recognizes home instruction by parents or instruction by tutors, provided that specified conditions are met, and provisions for some form of home schooling are provided in the majority of the fifty states. Other exemptions and delays for attendance are made for children with medical, physical, or emotional problems. Exceptions to compulsory attendance laws may be made if children within certain ages do not have public transportation provided within certain distances from their homes. Information provided by the Education Commission of the States in 2000 shows that, in several states, students sixteen years old may be eligible for withdrawal from the regular classroom if fully employed or enrolled in alternative education programs, with approval by parents and principals.

Issues Associated with Compulsory Attendance

Despite the changes in state laws to increase flexibility, there are some critics who maintain that compulsory school attendance should be ended. The National Center for Policy Analysis provides some of the arguments to lower the compulsory school upper age limit, or to limit hours. Opponents claim that compulsory school attendance does not necessarily result in better education for students, but could subject them to social engineering. Others claim that compulsory attendance results in prolonged adolescence and suggest that forced attendance in high school could contribute to violence and discipline problems. Compulsory attendance laws have been said to limit innovation and be burdensome for parents who home-school their children. Yet the National Center for Policy Analysis cites statistics indicating that students who attend school a greater percentage of time than their counterparts with lesser attendance records score higher on state knowledge and skills tests.

Respondents to the thirty-third annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools, conducted in January 2001, support reforming the existing public school system by almost two-to-one, rather than creating alternatives to the existing system. Seventy-five percent of the respondents prefer to improve the existing public school system rather than provide vouchers to pay for private or church-related schools.

Not only is an argument made for attendance at schools in order to prepare children for employment and economic success, but also for the development of values and the character traits needed for citizenship. The Center on Education Policy makes the case that public education is essential not only in teaching the principles of democracy and the role of government, but also in promoting civic values and the philosophy of tolerance for diversity and respect for differences in race and religion.

Whether the basis is economic self-sufficiency, educational reform, preparation for work or further study, character development, or promotion of the citizenry and the democratic way of life, the reasons for compulsory attendance of some kind reinforce the continued existence of state statutes. However, changing circumstances, flexibility for parents and students, and the needs of various student populations continue to shape these laws and contribute to their evolution.

See also: Constitutional Requirements Governing American Education; Elementary Education, subentry on History of; Secondary Education, subentry on History of.


Council of Chief State School Officers. 2000. Key State Education Policies on K12 Education:2000. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Duckworth, Kenneth. 1992. "Attendance Policy." In Encyclopedia of Educational Research, Vol. 1, ed. Marvin C. Alkin. New York: Macmillan.

Ensign, Forest Chester. 1921. Compulsory School Attendance and Child Labor. Iowa City, IA: Athens Press.

Gee, Gordon E., and Sperry, David J. 1978. Education Law and the Public Schools: A Compendium. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Good, Harry Gehman. 1956. A History of American Education. New York: Macmillan.

Goodlad, John I., and McMannon, Timothy J., eds. 1997. The Public Purpose of Education and Schooling. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hudgins, H. C., Jr., and Vacca, Richard S. 1995. Law and Education, Contemporary Issues and Court Decisions, 4th edition. Charlottesville, VA: Michie.

Keim, Albert N. 1975. Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kotin, Lawrence, and Aikman, William. 1980. Legal Foundations of Compulsory School Attendance. New York: National University Publications, Kennikat Press.

Rose, Lowell C., and Gallup, Alec M. 2001. "The Thirty-Third Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools." Phi Delta Kappan 83 (1):4158.

Virginia Department of Education. 2000. Virginia School Laws. Charlottesville, VA: Michie.

White, Patricia. 1996. Civic Virtues and Public Schooling, Educating Citizens for a Democratic Society. New York: Teachers College Press.

internet resources

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Margo, Robert A., and Finegan, Aldrich T. 1996. "Compulsory Schooling Legislation and School Attendance in Turn-of-the-Century America: A 'Natural Experiment' Approach." National Bureau of Economic Research. <>.

National Center for Policy Analysis. "Forcing Kids to Learn." 1996. <>.

National Center for Policy Analysis. 1998. "Compulsory School-Attendance Laws Reconsidered." <>.

National Center for Policy Analysis. 2000. "Taking a Second Look at School Attendance." <>.

Cynthia A. Cave

Compulsory School Attendance

views updated May 29 2018

Compulsory School Attendance

Between 1852 and 1918 all states and territories in the United States enacted compulsory school attendance laws. That children should be educated was a compulsory mandate in all state and territorial constitutions, but such proclamations said nothing about attendance at schools. Compulsory school attendance laws passed during the latter half of the nineteenth century represented more than the cessation of voluntary schooling; they formalized a significant broadening of state authority and its assumption of responsibility for the education of children.

The passage of compulsory school attendance legislation in the United States must be viewed as both a philosophical issue and a historical event. As a philosophical issue, the enactment of these laws reflected the demographic, economic, and cultural forces that were transforming nineteenth-century America. Opposition to compulsory attendance was defended by claims that such legislation would begin a decline in those values that distinguished the United States from the historical legacy of Europe. Such legislation would invite political intrusion into local communities and under-mine traditional parental authority. Yet opposition could be quickly reversed on similar philosophical grounds. Passing compulsory school attendance would signify the benign role of the state, aligning it against sectarian and class divisions. In this view, compulsory school attendance was a means to a moral goal, for universal schooling best fit the emerging image of the nation as an organic unity that superceded particular groups or localities.

When viewed as a historical event, the timing of the enactment of compulsory schooling helps to explain much of the philosophical debate itself. A comparison of Western societies demonstrates that state enactment of compulsory schooling is not explained by economic factors, such as level of industrialization or urbanization. Some countries implemented compulsory schooling well before industrializing. The earliest state to do so, Prussia, illustrates the noneconomic motive behind enacting compulsory schooling. Enacting compulsory schooling was a means to reinvigorate national solidarity in a context where traditional, external modes of authority were weakening. Compulsory schooling was a form of nation-building, foreshadowing the larger historical movement to broaden the rights of individuals as citizens and linking this to an expanded moral jurisdiction of state authority. In contrast, England, a comparative late-comer to compulsory schooling, enacted its Elementary Education Act of 1870, well after taking the lead in inaugurating industrialization. Yet, like Prussia, a weak showing at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 signaled a threat to its international stature, in turn challenging traditional means of authority and technical training. The prompt to reinvigorate national solidarity fueled a sense of urgency and thereby gave legitimacy to an extension of state authority over universal primary education.

The comparison of Prussia and England is instructive for the American states. State variation in the timing of enactment was likewise weakly connected to economic factors. Rather, the timing of enactment must be viewed within the broader context of national formation. Most northern and western states and territories enacted compulsory schooling as part of a sequence of institutional formation, passing the law only after they had established the state reform school, the state lunatic asylum, and the state hospital for the deaf and blind. For these states, compulsory school attendance legislation was concrete evidence of their institutional strength; for young territories it was a symbol of their wish to obtain statehood. For both, the enactment of compulsory schooling laws had little to do with compelling attendance. Southern states, by contrast, enacted compulsory school attendance laws after 1900, and did so reluctantly. A planter class fearful of elevating the educational aspirations of exslaves and poor whites, whose labor was critical to an agrarian, plantation economy, effectively resisted the extension of universal public education. For these states, compulsory schooling symbolized the reverse of what it meant to their northern and western counterparts: it signaled a threat to the traditional means of social control, which the planter class sought to maintain in a racially divided form.

The passage of compulsory attendance laws in the American states had little to do with compelling school attendance, for school attendance was already high. To seek the reasons for their enactment in the requirements of an industrial economy is as misplaced as to seek their effects in expanding enrollment. Under such scrutiny, the laws may be seen as failures. Yet by legally positing universal schooling as a common goal, the laws helped to structure the social and legal categories of childhood and adolescence that have become integral to American culture generally and to the organization of American education in particular.

See also: Common Schools; Education, Europe; Education, United States; European Industrialization; Mann, Horace .


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Fuller, Bruce, and Richard Rubinson, eds. 1992. The Political Construction of Education, The State, School Expansion, and Economic Change. New York: Praeger.

Melton, James Van Horn. 1988. Absolutism and the Eighteenth-Century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ramirez, Francisco O., and John Boli. 1987. "The Political Construction of Mass Schooling: European Origins and Worldwide Institutionalization." Sociology of Education 60: 217.

Richardson, John G. 1994. "Common, Delinquent, and Special: On the Formalization of Common Schooling in the American States." American Educational Research Journal 31: 695723.

John G. Richardson

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