Compulsory Educational Attendance Laws Essay

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Compulsory education requires by law that all children receive some form of schooling. Compulsory education is largely seen as being a universal good for the child, as well as the society in which he or she lives. Less often, it is considered to be a means by which the state can exercise control and influence over its citizens. This entry looks at the history of this practice, relevant court rulings, and critiques.

Historical Background

The first compulsory education law was passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642. The law removed control of education from the clergy and placed it under the direction of citizens or “selectmen” of the colony. It required parents and craftsmen or masters to make sure that their children were able to read. In 1647 a general school law, known as “The Old Deluder Satan Act,” was passed requiring towns in the colony to establish schools. The law took its name from its first line, which made reference to Satan. It was based on the belief that children had to be able to read the Bible and other religious texts in order to overcome his influence.

The first state in the United States to enact a compulsory education law was Massachusetts in 1852. Extremely limited in scope, the law required that children under fifteen years of age could only be employed if they had received a minimum of three months of schooling prior to their employment. Compulsory education laws were proposed in Illinois as early as 1838, but were only first enacted in 1883. The last state to require compulsory education was Mississippi in 1918.

Compulsory education at the high school level became widespread throughout the United States during the Great Depression. The shortage of jobs available to youth made schools a good place for them to be instead of out on the streets where they would compete with adults for scarce jobs and potentially become unruly. In this context, schools took on a greater custodial function—one that they still maintain to a large degree today.

Court Rulings

Whether or not the state has the right to compel students to attend only public schools was decided by the Supreme Court in the case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925). In 1922, Oregon passed a law requiring all children between the ages of eight and sixteen to attend public schools. The idea was to provide all children with a uniform education subject to state control. It was argued that Oregon had an interest in making sure that its future citizens were educated sufficiently to hold jobs, to vote, and to understand and appreciate “American values.” The law had the effect of closing down all private education—in particular, Oregon’s Catholic schools.

It was eventually overturned on the basis that it interfered with the rights of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their own children. The decision did not interfere with the state’s right to regulate, in terms of minimal standards, the teaching and content of the curriculum. Thus, it could require that teachers in a private school have a certain minimal level of education and that even a private school curriculum include subjects such as civics and American history.

In the 1972 Supreme Court case of Yoder v. Wisconsin, the issue of family rights and compulsory education was addressed once again. In the action, Amish parents maintained that the attendance of their children in schools beyond the eighth-grade level threatened their survival as a religious group. This was based on the Amish belief that knowledge received from books represents a distraction from the message God provides in the Bible and that attendance at school beyond a certain point would divert Amish children from the beliefs of their community.

The Court maintained that both the beliefs of the child and the parents needed to be taken into account, and various accommodations were set in place that allowed the Amish to continue to follow their religious beliefs. School attendance beyond eighth grade would not be required—thus contradicting the general rule that children attend school until the age of sixteen. In this context, the decision of the court took into account basic principles of religious freedom—specifically the rights guaranteed under the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The idea of universal and compulsory education for all children was reinforced on an international basis when in 1948 the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which it called for compulsory elementary education for all children. In April 2000, 1,100 delegates from 164 countries reaffirmed this principle at the UNESCO sponsored World Education Forum in Dakar by adopting the Dakar Framework for Action, which established the goal of free compulsory and high-quality education for all children by the year 2015.


There have been a number of useful systematic critiques of compulsory schooling since the 1960s, including Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Mis-Education (1962), which argued that public schools represented a “compulsory trap”; Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1970), which called for the elimination of traditional schools through a process of deschooling; and John Holt’s Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974), which declared that children should have the same rights as adults and not be compelled to attend institutions such as schools if they did not wish to do so.

In his book Horace’s Compromise (1984), Theodore Sizer argued that society has made schools much more difficult places in which to teach and learn by compelling unwilling students to attend them. More recently, John Taylor Gatto in The Underground History of American Education (2003) has argued that the schools are part of a larger social and cultural system intended to suppress personal freedom and keep power in the hands of a political and social elite. In order to do so, mandatory or compulsory education is a requirement.


  1. Gatto, J. T. (2003). The underground history of American education. New York: Oxford Village Press.
  2. Goodman, P. (1964). Compulsory mis-education. New York: Horizon Press.
  3. Holt, J. (1974). Escape from childhood: The needs and rights of children. New York: Penguin.
  4. Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling society. New York: Harper & Row. Sizer, T. (1984). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  5. Dakar Framework for Action:
  6. Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

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