We have received a spate of questions about the age at which a child must start complying with compulsory school attendance laws. Is it 5, 6, or 7? Here’s a quick history.

For many years in South Dakota, a child under age 6 became subject to compulsory attendance upon enrolling in public school. All other children became subject upon reaching age 6. Parents could request a waiver to excuse the child from compliance until age 7, and the local public school was required to grant it. Depending on all the circumstances, therefore, compulsory school attendance for a particular child might start at age 4, 5, 6, or 7. This arrangement demonstrated respect for the judgment of parents.

In 2006, the South Dakota House Education Committee, at the request of the governor, introduced House Bill 1234 that would have abolished the waiver and changed the law from the quite clear “a child who is six years old” to the very odd “a child who is not younger than five or older than seven.”

In a House committee on February 23, it was amended to read, still oddly, “not younger than five or older than six.” The bill subsequently died in a Senate committee after vigorous opposition from the homeschool community and others. It looked like the right of parents to decide whether their 5- or 6-year-old was ready for schooling was intact.

But five days later, on February 28, a legislative conference committee met to discuss a different bill, H.B. 1175. The committee “hoghoused” the bill. It took out all the original language and replaced it with the contents of H.B. 1234. The House and Senate quickly passed the bill the same day. There was no time to communicate opposition. It was later signed by the governor.

Parents lost the right to decide for themselves when their children are ready to begin school. And when parents lose the power to make individual choices with regard to their children, the children lose.

I sent out a bulletin conveying the startling news that despite the defeat of H.B. 1234, all 5-year-olds would be subject to compulsory attendance as of July 1, 2010—the effective date of H.B. 1175.

Here is the law as it stands right now:

“Any person having control of a child, who is not younger than five or older than six years old by the first day of September, or any child who, by the first day of September, is at least six years old, but who has not exceeded the age of eighteen, shall cause the child to regularly attend ...”

While the wording is very odd, it’s grammatically clear that any child age 5 or older is subject to the law. If it seems a bit confusing, here’s a strategy you can use. First mentally remove the phrase “not younger than five” and replace it with the equivalent (and clearer) “five years old.” Then finish up by giving “or” its grammatically correct function in both places where it is found in the law. The result is that there is no room for doubt that children who are 5 years old are subject to compulsory attendance.

There is abundant research showing that 5-year-olds do not thrive—and may even be harmed—when they are pushed into schooling. But until the voters of South Dakota insist on restoring the rights of parents, 5-year-olds are subject to the law.