- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Home-schoolers are watching two opposing trends with great interest.

The right to educate one's children at home has become more established in the past 20 years, and that's a good thing. But the right of parents to determine when their children are ready to begin or finish formal education has steadily eroded. Minimum compulsory education ages have been falling and maximum compulsory ages have been rising, and many home-schoolers feel that's a bad thing.

A review of bills introduced in state legislatures shows there is an ultimate goal to extend compulsory attendance from birth to about age 18, age of majority. Every year there are bills to lower or increase the limits of compulsory attendance. We even see legislation to support "voluntary" programs that begin when the baby is still in the hospital. They are called "Early at Risk Intervention," or "Learning Readiness," or something that sounds benign enough.

Should there be compulsory attendance laws at all? Examples from history seem to argue against compulsory attendance laws. The resolution of this debate will have a profound impact on the next generation.

From the founding of our republic until the mid-1800s, there were no compulsory education laws in our country. Yet this was the era of the Founding Fathers, men of unequaled leadership and intellect. The first compulsory attendance law was adopted in Massachusetts in 1852. Beginning in 1867, other states followed Massachusetts.

By 1918, there had been a massive transfer of responsibility from the family to the state, and all states had compulsory attendance laws. Many factors contributed to this.

Proponents of compulsory attendance hoped that the new laws would close the gap between rich and poor. Compulsory state education would "Americanize" the great waves of immigrants. Now that child labor was illegal, people thought compulsory state education would improve children's lives.

American supporters of compulsory attendance pointed with admiration to the system of compulsory attendance established by Prussia (part of modern Germany) in 1717.

Just before World War I (in which 9 million died), George Milton, editor of the Knoxville Sentinel, wrote:

"The Germans were the earliest to institute a system of general education, and the wonderful progress of Germany in every respect is now largely attributed to the thoroughness of national education. The fact that in Germany elementary education has been generally compulsory and, to a large extent, also gratuitous, for more than one hundred and fifty years, is recognized to be an essential element in recent political, industrial, and commercial successes of the nation."

Not every leader agreed with that newspaper editor about compulsory attendance. Pennsylvania's governor vetoed compulsory attendance bills in 1891 and 1893 because they interfered with traditional parental liberties. In 1892, the national platform of the Democratic Party stated: "We are opposed to state interference with parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children."

As a great man once commented, "I never left the party. The party left me."

By the early 1920s, all meaningful debate over the virtue of compulsory attendance had ceased. The discussions now centered on how compulsory attendance should be enforced and for how long. The minimum age for compulsory attendance was forced steadily lower. Early compulsory attendance laws generally did not require attendance until a child turned 8, and in Ohio and South Dakota, attendance was not required until age 10. Only New Hampshire required attendance of 6-year-olds.

Now, 28 states require 6-year-olds to attend school. Worse, the District, Delaware and Oklahoma compel 5-year-olds to attend. In 1887, the territory that became Washington state required attendance to age 18. Today, 14 states do. The average length of the school term was also growing. From 1887 until today, the average school term swelled from 130 to 180 days.

Widespread stories of the social and academic failure of public schools helped reopen the compulsory attendance dialogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We will see if one side can prevail in the debate.

Both those in favor of compulsory attendance laws and those opposed are lobbying and trying to make their case. Bills are introduced in state legislatures to lower the minimum age of compulsory attendance and raise the maximum. Although most of these failed in state legislatures meeting in 2000 with significant home-school opposition, a few (Vermont and Connecticut) succeeded.

Lengthening the school term is another controversial topic. Japan, where students attend school 240 to 250 days per year, including half a day Saturday, is frequently held up as an example. Admiration for the Japanese system today is reminiscent of the admiration expressed for the German system at the beginning of the compulsory attendance movement.

Is it merely a coincidence that the two countries whose educational systems we have most admired gave rise to totalitarian states in the 20th century, bent on world domination? The Japanese today have taken an attitude of benign neglect toward home-schoolers, but Germany is one of the harshest opponents of home-schooling in all of Europe.

The dying embers of two world wars remind us that the utopian impulse that lures men to entrust control of the individual including compulsory attendance and state control of education to the wisdom of the state has set the stage for corrupt and domineering governments.

The results are horrible. Although today's compulsory attendance proponents say their purpose is benign, when the power to control education is concentrated in the hands of a few, it can easily be turned toward less benign objectives.

Although the general trend has been for expanded compulsory attendance, we have seen a handful of instances in which states reduced the period of compulsory attendance. The Home School Legal Defense Association supports efforts wherever possible to roll back compulsory attendance laws. It has happened before. Nothing in the Constitution compels any state to operate public schools or to compel attendance or, for that matter, to take any role in education.

For centuries, education has primarily taken place in the home. Home-schooling parents are proving every day that children can develop very well in the unique circumstances of their families. Those who believe forced school attendance is an educational panacea will be disappointed.

Compulsory attendance is a relatively new phenomenon in our country. The home-school community brings a broader, historical perspective to the compulsory attendance discussion by demonstrating that family centered education can succeed today as it did in revolutionary America, in 1776, when literacy rates were about 97 percent.

The home is the center of nurture, education and life itself. Compulsory education usurps parents' right to choose when to school their children. It undermines the integrity of the home.

We need to re-establish the right of parents to decide when their children are ready to begin formal education. Youngsters need to enjoy the brief years of childhood without the threat of government intervention. A shadow is cast across the joyful teaching of loving parents when education is no longer a natural product of their love for each other but a product of state compulsion.

The failure of the public schools and the success of home-schooling demand a thoughtful dialogue on whether compulsory attendance laws should be retained or rolled back.

Scott Woodruff is an attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association. He may be contacted at 540/338-5600; or by e-mail ([email protected]).

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