Issues Library—State & Local
What are Compulsory Attendance Laws?
Compulsory attendance laws are crafted by each state to require school attendance for children of certain ages. Five states require students to begin school at age 5, 32 mandate school attendance at age 6, and a small number allow children to wait until reaching 8 years old. All children must continue education through high school, with 26 states setting the benchmark at 16, and others at 17 or 18. Various exceptions may apply on a state-by-state basis.1
Most states also require students to study for a certain number of instructional days. The majority of states (30) set the number at 180 days, two mandate 181 or more days, and 11 range from 179 to under 170 days. Some states require fewer instructional days for homeschools and private schools, and in a few states, homeschools are completely exempt from such regulations.2 These laws are enforced by local attendance officers, law enforcement officers, and courts. Parents are held legally responsible for their children’s school attendance, and can face penalties such as fines or jail sentences if their children fail to meet minimum requirements.
Were These Laws Always Part of the American Education System?
State-mandated attendance has not been the historical norm. America’s early education laws were few and scattered. In 1642, the Massachusetts Bay Colony stipulated that parents provide religious instruction for their children. For the next 200 years, most education laws were minimal and focused on family-centered education, giving children the tools to read the Bible, helping them understand what it meant to be virtuous citizens, or allowing them to learn a trade through apprenticeship.
By 1900, however, the courts were rife with child labor disputes. Compulsory education laws were quickly enacted in the name of protecting children’s welfare. By 1918, every state had a compulsory attendance law on the books. These laws became progressively stricter until the Supreme Court’s Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision in 1925.3 In this case, the court held unconstitutional an Oregon compulsory attendance law that made it illegal to attend any academic institution besides public school. Later, Wisconsin v. Yoder affirmed the traditional interest of parents to opt out of compulsory attendance for religious reasons.4
Do Compulsory Attendance Laws Work?
Compulsory attendance legislation remains the subject of fierce debate. Proponents credit such legislation with reducing instances of teenage pregnancy (by 0.008 percent),5 possibly decreasing the likelihood that children will become involved in crime, and positively impacting earnings (by keeping 25 percent of drop-outs in school).6
Critics answer that the benefits of compulsory attendance laws are negligible at best. A historical overview of compulsory attendance laws by the National Center for Policy Analysis observed that, “Evidence suggests that the purpose of compulsory school attendance may not be improving education, but social engineering, including protecting children from the bad choices of parents.”7 In the 1970s, a federal report urged that formal school hours be cut down to four hours a day because of the detrimental effect of the public school classroom on children’s development. Studies cite the example of Japan, where high school attendance is not compulsory.8 Because high school is seen as a privilege and is attended only by students who are serious about their education, violence and delinquency are almost completely absent from their school system. It seems that compulsory attendance laws actually decrease the quality of a child’s education and their enthusiasm about learning.
Where Does HSLDA Stand?
HSLDA is dedicated to protecting the educational relationship between parents and their children. We are recapturing a broader historical perspective on school attendance. In America’s formative years, the responsibility for education was centered on the family, a method of learning that produced well-rounded children with literacy rates and reading comprehension higher than today.9 Ultimately, a formulaic and compulsory approach to education fails to instill in children a love of learning or a quality education. HSLDA has consistently protected homeschool families from the deleterious effects of compulsory attendance education in their states, reinforcing the parental right to choose the method of education most fitting to the individual needs and gifts of their children.
1. Digest of Education Statistics (2008). “Table 165.” Age range for compulsory school attendance and special education services, and policies on year-round schools and kindergarten programs, by state: Selected years, 1997 through 2008. The US Department of Education Institution of Education Sciences' National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d08/tables/dt08_165.asp; Also see the HSLDA state law map.
5. Daily Policy Digest: Education Issues (2005, August 30). “The Effects of Compulsory Schooling Laws on Teenage Births.” The National Center for Policy Analysis. Retrieved from http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=2183.
6. Angrist, Joshua D. and Krueger, Allan B. (November 1991). “Does Compulsory School Attendance Affect Schooling and Earnings?” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 106 (No. 4). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 2937954.
7. Daily Policy Digest: Education Issues (1996, January 10). “Compulsory Attendance Laws Not Needed.” The National Center for Policy Analysis. Retrieved from http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=15797.
9. Peterson, Robert A. (September 1983). “Education in Colonial America.” The Foundation for Economic Education's Freeman Publication, Vol. 33 (No. 9), http://www.thefreemanonline.org/columns/education-in-colonial-america/#.