NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Compulsory Attendance Laws Not Needed

January 10, 1996

Historical evidence indicates that state compulsory school attendance laws aren't necessary to achieve a highly literate society, and actually diminish the quality of education received by students who want an education. When Massachusetts became the first state to adopt a compulsory school attendance law in 1852, the United States already had a higher level of literacy than it has today.

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.

  • Influenced by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan, Oregon outlawed all independent schools -- but the law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925.
  • A Wisconsin law, overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, prohibited Amish parents from withdrawing their children from school after the eighth grade in accordance with their religious beliefs.
  • In some states, compulsory school attendance has been extended to compulsory community service.
  • Colorado Governor Roy Romer in 1992 proposed that "at-risk" 4-year-olds be forced into school.
  • In recent years, Annette Cootes of the Texas State Teachers Association called home schooling by parents "child abuse," and the National Education Association passed a resolution calling for its prohibition.

Yet, others in the education field have begun to realize the shortcomings of compulsory education.

  • In the 1970s, a federal report called for cutting formal schooling down to two to four hours a day because of the classroom's detrimental effect on children's development.
  • In 1991, a U.S. Department of Education official, John Burkett, criticized the "prolonged adolescence" induced by compulsory attendance.
  • In Japan, which is often held up as model for education, attendance in high school is completely voluntary, and there are few problems with violence or discipline.
  • However, Japan's junior highs, where attendance is compulsory, are more violent than those in the United States, and the violence is committed by the 7 percent who choose not to continue into senior highs.

Although 82 percent of American students are in public schools, many are there because their parents cannot afford private schools. Such families are forced consumers of public education, without the protection against bad schools that freedom of choice and competition would bring.

Source: Sheldon Richman and David Kopel, "End Compulsory Schooling," Issue Paper #1-96, January 10, 1996, Independence Institute, 14142 Denver West Parkway, Suite 185, Golden, CO 80401, (303) 279-6536.


Browse more articles on Education Issues