Compulsory Attendance

Compulsory attendance laws refer to legislative mandates that school-aged children attend public, nonpublic, or homeschools until reaching specified ages. The primary components of compulsory attendance laws include school admission and exit ages, length of school years, student enrollment procedures and requirements, and enforcement of student truancy provisions. Local school attendance officers and/or juvenile domestic relations courts generally enforce compulsory attendance laws. Additionally, all jurisdictions hold parents or legal guardians legally responsible for the school attendance of their children.

Consequences for students who violate compulsory attendance laws typically include removal from regular classrooms and placement in alternative school settings. In some instances, students who violate compulsory attendance laws have had their driving privileges revoked. More recently, local school officials have been able to resort to their states’ child abuse and neglect statutes as a means of prosecuting parents or legal guardians whose children do not comply with their states’ compulsory attendance laws. In these instances, the parents are prosecuted as guilty of educational neglect rather than child abuse. This entry looks at the historical background of such statutes and related case law.

Historical Background

In 1852, Massachusetts became the first jurisdiction in the United States to adopt a compulsory attendance law. The Massachusetts School Attendance Act of 1852 specified that children between the ages of 8 and 14 were required to attend school for a minimum of 12 weeks per year; 6 weeks of a student’s attendance was required to be consecutive if the school was open for that period of time. By 1918, all states had formally adopted compulsory attendance laws requiring school-aged children to attend school. While all jurisdictions currently require children to attend school, the mechanisms for their doing so vary.

A 2000 study by the Education Commission of the States indicated that the youngest age for compulsory attendance in the United States is 5, and the upper age limit ranges from 16 to 18. The legal authority for compulsory attendance laws in the United States is firmly rooted in the courts as a valid use of state power under the U.S. Constitution. In Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), for example, the Supreme Court ruled “that the state may do much, go very far, indeed, in order to improve the quality of its citizens, physically, mentally, and morally. . . .” (p. 627).

Court Support

The bulk of legal arguments relating to compulsory attendance laws involve issues surrounding the balancing of the state’s interest in ensuring that students receive an appropriate education against the right of parents to decide when and where their children attend school. The U.S. Supreme Court specifically addressed whether compulsory education laws could be satisfied by sending children to nonpublic, including private or religiously affiliated schools, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (1925).

In Pierce, the Court struck down Oregon’s Compulsory Education Act, a law that required students between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public schools. In finding that parents could satisfy the compulsory attendance law by sending their schoolaged children to nonpublic schools, the Court formally recognized the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, namely the freedom of choice to decide whether to send their child to a public school or a private school or to homeschool the child. At the same time, in Pierce, the Court acknowledged the importance of the states’ need to ensure that students receive an appropriate education. To this end, the Court noted that states can “reasonably regulate” all schools, including private schools, in areas such as accreditation, curriculum approval, health, and safety.

Two years after Pierce, in Farrington v. Tokushige (1927), the Supreme Court affirmed the legal doctrine that parents may send their children to nonpublic schools as an effective means of satisfying compulsory attendance laws. In Farrington, Hawaii attempted to impose strict regulations on all predominately Japanese foreign language schools, arguing that the teachers who worked in those schools had to have demonstrated knowledge in American history and fluency in English. The Court indicated that because attempts to regulate the Japanese foreign language school did not serve a public interest, they infringed on the rights of both parents and the owners of the schools.

Exceptions to the Law

In light of the precedent established in Pierce, state compulsory education laws have generally withstood constitutional challenges. However, when an Amish group contested the state of Wisconsin’s compulsory education law that required school-aged children to attend school until age 16, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) thus represents the Court’s most significant departure from judicial support for compulsory attendance laws. The Amish maintained that they did not want their children attending either public or nonpublic schools after the eighth grade, because the children would by then have received all of the education and preparation for life that they would need in the Amish communities.

Relying on the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Court reasoned that both the Amish community’s religious way of life and its unique societal values would have been severely endangered by complying with the compulsory attendance laws. The Court concluded that because the Amish way of life and religion were inseparable, the state’s compulsory attendance laws would have significantly jeopardized the free exercise of Amish religious beliefs. Even so, since Yoder, courts have consistently denied religious-based exceptions, typically to parents who wish to homeschool their children, from compulsory attendance laws.

Recently, compulsory attendance statutes in some states have been amended to address alternative education and to include a limited number of exceptions. One of the most common exceptions, or conditions to compulsory education statutes in most states, is the requirement that students be properly immunized or vaccinated prior to enrolling in schools. The vaccination requirement is predicated on the state’s police powers of looking after the health and welfare of its citizens.

In limited instances, an exception to a state’s compulsory education law could occur if students become mentally or physically impaired. This exception is rarely used, because federal law requires local school boards to provide special education related services for students with disabilities. Overall, insofar as the authority of states to mandate specific compulsory attendance laws is largely within their legal boundaries, courts generally do not interfere with prescribed compulsory attendance legislative mandates.

Kevin P. Brady

See also Homeschooling; Meyer v. Nebraska; Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary; Wisconsin v. Yoder

Further Readings

  • Dodd, V. J. (2003). Practical education law for the twentyfirst century. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press. 
  • Kotin, L., & Aikman, W. (1980). Legal foundations of compulsory school attendance. New York: Kennikat Press. 
  • White, P. (1996). Civic virtues and public schooling, educating citizens for a democratic society. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Legal Citations

  • Farrington v. Tokushige, 273 U.S. 284 (1927). 
  • Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923). 
  • Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510 (1925). 
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).