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Cover Story
Compulsory Education Laws: The Dialogue Reopens

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C O V E R   S T O R Y

Even as the right to educate one’s children at home has become more established over the past 20 years, the right of parents to determine when their children are ready begin or finish formal education has steadily eroded. Minimum compulsory education ages have been falling and maximum compulsory ages have been rising.

As a result, a new dialogue has opened. The question is being asked: Should there be compulsory attendance laws at all? The resolution of this debate will have a profound impact on the education of the next generation.

The History of Compulsory Education in America

When our passion for liberty burned brightest, there were no compulsory education laws in our country. Between the pre-Revolutionary period and the mid-1800s, the power to decide whether, when, and how to educate one’s children lay entirely in the hands of the parents. The first compulsory attendance law was adopted in Massachusetts in 1852.1 During the next 15 years, no other state followed Massachusetts. But, beginning in 1867, a steady stream of states began adopting compulsory attendance laws and, by 1918, all states had enacted them.2

Germany’s Education System

In 1908, only a half dozen years before the Kaiser’s attempt to conquer Europe, George Milton, Editor of the Knoxville Sentinel, published an article, “Compulsory Education and the Southern States.” In this piece, he referred admiringly no less than three times to the German compulsory attendance system, including this gushy quote:

The Germans were the earliest to institute a system of general education, and the wonderful progress of Germany in every respect is now largely attributed to the thoroughness of national education...

The fact that in Germany elementary education has been generally compulsory and, to a large extent, also gratuitous, for more than one hundred and fifty years, is recognized to be an essential element in recent political, industrial, and commercial successes of the nation.4

Many factors contributed to this transfer of responsibility from the family unit to the state. Proponents of compulsory attendance hoped that the disparity between the poor and the wealthy would be “leveled.” Some saw compulsory state education as a way of “Americanizing” the great waves of immigrants. Compulsory state education was also seen as a way to improve the situation of children following the passage of laws outlawing child labor.

American proponents of compulsory attendance pointed with admiration to the system of compulsory attendance established by Prussia (part of modern-day Germany) in 1717.3 (See side bar.)

There were those who raised their voices against the rising tide of compulsory attendance. Governor Pattison of Pennsylvania vetoed two compulsory attendance bills in 1891 and 1893 on the ground that they interfered with traditional parental liberties. In 1892, the national platform of the Democratic Party stated: “We are opposed to state interference with parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children.”5

By the early 1920s, however, all meaningful debate over the virtue of compulsory attendance had ceased. The discussions that continued centered on how compulsory attendance should be enforced, and for how long. The minimum age for compulsory attendance was forced steadily lower. Early compulsory attendance laws generally did not require attendance until a child turned 8, and in Ohio and South Dakota, attendance was not required until age 10. Only one state, New Hampshire, required attendance of 6 year olds.

Table 1

Click to enlarge.

As Table 1 indicates, the number of states requiring 6 year olds to attend school has risen dramatically, and today, 28 states require attendance of 6 year olds. The District of Columbia, Delaware, and Oklahoma have even gone so far as to require children to attend school at the tender age of 5.

During the same period, the number of states requiring attendance until 18 grew steadily. In 1887, only Washington state required attendance to age 18. Today, 14 states do. The average length of the school term was also growing. From 1887 until today, the average school term swelled from 130 to 180 days.

A Thoughtful Dialogue

Prompted perhaps by wide media exposure of the social and academic failure of public schools, the dialogue concerning the desirability of compulsory attendance laws was reopened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.6 Today, there are at least two organizations that advocate the repeal of compulsory attendance laws.7,8 It remains to be seen which side of the dialogue will prevail in the 21st century.

Those who favor compulsory attendance laws are not sitting idly by while a determined minority works to abolish compulsory attendance. In recent years, bills have been introduced in multiple states to lower the minimum age of compulsory attendance and raise the maximum. Although most of these have failed with significant home school opposition, a few (Vermont and Connecticut) have succeeded. A bill expanding compulsory attendance awaits the governor’s action in New York.

Furthermore, lengthening the school term is another topic engendering great discussion. Japan is frequently held up as an example for the United States to follow. Japanese students attend school 240 to 250 days per year, including half a day Saturday.9 The admiration expressed for the Japanese educational system today is reminiscent of the admiration expressed for the German education system at the beginning of the compulsory attendance movement.

Is it merely a coincidence that the two countries whose educational system we have most admired gave rise to totalitarian states in the 20th century, bent on world domination? Looking into the dying embers of two world wars should remind us that the utopian impulse that lures men to entrust control of the individual—including compulsory attendance and state control of education—to the wisdom of the state, sets the stage for corrupt and domineering governments. And, as experience should have taught us, this can lead to horrible results. Although today’s proponents of compulsory attendance will argue that their purpose is benign, when the power to control education is concentrated in the hands of a few, it can easily be turned toward objectives which are not all benign.

Home School Legal Defense Association supports efforts wherever possible to roll back compulsory attendance laws. It has happened before. Although the general trend has been for the period of compulsory attendance to expand, there have been a handful of instances in which state laws reduced the period of compulsory attendance. Nothing in the United States Constitution compels any state to operate public schools or to compel attendance. And of course, the Constitution nowhere empowers the federal government to take any role in education.

What Role Should Government Play in Education?

Although courts today frequently say that education is one of the most important roles of government, this shows an astounding lack of perspective and knowledge of U.S. history. During the 75 years after America declared our independence from England, our government’s role in education was minimal, and compulsory attendance nonexistent.

For centuries, education has primarily taken place in the home. Compulsory attendance is relatively new phenomenon in our country. The home school community brings a broader, historical perspective into the dialogue by demonstrating that education centering around the family unit can be as successful today as it was around the time of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, when literacy rates were around 97 percent. In the scriptural model, the home is the center of nurture, education, and life itself. Compulsory education undermines the integrity of the home by usurping parents’ authority to make educational decisions for their children.

We need to reestablish the right of parents to decide when their children are ready to begin formal education and of young children to enjoy the brief years of childhood without the threat of government intervention. A shadow is cast across the joyful teaching of loving parents when education is no longer a natural product of their love for each other, but a product of state compulsion.

The failure of the public school system and the success of home schooling demand that a thoughtful dialogue move forward on whether or not compulsory attendance laws should be retained.

Looking Ahead

Meanwhile, HSLDA continues to look for opportunities to protect current freedoms and return full control of children’s education to their parents. We are also monitoring state legislation in cooperation with state home school organizations. You can help by reading the Court Report, staying in touch with your state organization, and watching your state legislature to find out about bills that may change school attendance ages. You can also educate your neighbors and state representatives on the issue or consider becoming a part-time volunteer lobbyist in your state legislature.

Even though most state legislatures have ended their 2000 sessions, bills will fly thick and fast when they reconvene in January. HSLDA expects to see a number of school attendance bills appear in the 2001 legislative session.

In fact, the New Jersey legislature, still in session, has introduced Senate Bill 1541, which would lower the age of permission for kindergarten from 5 to 4. True, this is voluntary, not mandatory kindergarten. But once a voluntary government program is started, it’s only a baby step away from a mandatory program. A mere change of three letters in a state statute can replace the word “may” with “must.”

On the other hand, there are some good bills being proposed. Some New Hampshire legislative committees are already meeting in fall “work sessions” to prepare for their 2001 session. Just-drafted Bill 1533 would reduce opportunities for judges to take control of children for educational “neglect” reasons.

Harder to track than fast moving bills are last minute amendments. If you hear of such a bill or amendment, please let us know about it. Be ready to pray, write letters, send faxes or e-mails, and make phone calls to protect current freedoms—whenever a threatening bill pops up in your state.

End Notes:
A Case against Compulsion, Mary Kay Novello, page 3.
Dates of initial adoption of compulsory attendance laws, http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0112617.html.
Education: Free and Compulsory, Murray N. Rothbard, p. 25.
Compulsory Education in the Southern States, George Milton, p. 1.
Murray N. Rothbard, p. 43-44.
See, for example, Education: Free and Compulsory, Murray N. Rothbard, 1971.
See Exodus 2000, website at www.ExodusMandate.org.
See http://www.sepschool.org, website of the Separation of School and State Alliance, whose sole purpose is to end government involvement in education.
http://www.indiana.edu/~japan/japan/mdujapan/LS37.html, downloaded 09-19-00.