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Compulsory Education

Compulsory education laws require parents to have their children attend public, private, or parochial school for a designated period. Each state determines both the start and end time duration and generally requires children to begin school at the age range of five to seven years and end at the age of sixteen or seventeen. Some parental rights and responsibilities around educating children of a certain age were born out of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. This section focuses on the history and development of compulsory education laws, also known as compulsory attendance laws, and provides an overview of court case exemptions. Click on the links below to learn more.

Compulsory Education Laws: Background

Compulsory education laws have a long tradition that stretches across cultures. The ancient Jewish people required parents to provide an information education for their children, at minimum. Plato's Republic popularized the idea of mandatory education in ancient Rome, and the Aztec people of the 15th and 16th century had the first national mandatory education for all children.

In the United States, Massachusetts was the first state to enact a compulsory education law in 1852, though the state had passed a similar law in 1647 while still a colony. Mandatory education was an effective way to assimilate immigrant children and also helped discourage child labor. Although compulsory schooling is the norm exemptions have been developed.

Statutory Exemptions to Compulsory Education

Although the requirement that children receive an education is broadly stated there are certain circumstances that have justified the creation of exemptions through the passage of laws. Children that are homeschooled, or receive a private school education are exempted from the public educational requirements, though parents may still need to establish that the education their children receive complies with state regulations.

Children suffering a severe injury, illness, the death of a parent or guardian, or the severe illness or injury of an immediate family member may also justify some exemption from the compulsory education requirements. Some states permit exemption from compulsory education requirements for religious reasons. Some states have requirements that the reason be grounded in a recognized religious institution, while Virginia permits parents to completely exempt their child from all educational requirements for religious reasons.

Other states have additional exemptions. California allows child actors to be exempt from public school attendance, and Louisiana provides five-days excused absence for students whose parent or guardian have been called to active military duty overseas.

Exemption and Court Cases on Compulsory Education

In addition to the statutory exemptions courts have created some additional exemptions through their interpretation and application of laws. Additional exemptions found by courts include exemption where:

  • there is an imminent threat to the health, safety, or welfare of the student
  • the child has reached the age of majority
  • the child becomes mentally or physically disabled, although with new protections for the disabled this is now less frequently used
  • parents object to content that violates their religious beliefs
  • there are hazardous conditions or great distances that prevent attendance

However, not all claims are approved. Courts have denied exemption where parents simply believed a particular teacher was incompetent or otherwise unqualified, where the parent believed that the school was generally doing a poor job educating their child, and where parents objected to racial integration.

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