State Compulsory Education Laws
State laws requiring school attendance by children within a certain age range are fairly similar to one another. All states have compulsory education laws and allow exemptions for private schools and homeschooling, although the regulation of non-public schooling varies from state to state. Massachusetts was the first to enact such a law in 1852 and other states began passing similar statutes for various reasons, including the assimilation of recent immigrants and to discourage the exploitation of child labor.
Below you will find information about state compulsory education laws and penalties for non-compliance. As with all state laws, they may change periodically. See Compulsory Education Laws: Background and Exemption and Court Cases on Compulsory Education to learn more.
See Home Schooling Alternatives to learn more about your options outside of a traditional classroom.
Age Requirements of State Compulsory Education Laws
Half of U.S. states require parents to enroll their children in a public or state-accredited private school (with exemptions for homeschooling, online courses, etc.) from ages six or seven until the age of 16. A few states require children to enroll as young as five, while the required enrollment age in two states is eight.
Age requirements for compulsory school enrollment in selected states:
- Illinois - 6 to 17
- District of Columbia - 5 to 18
- Pennsylvania - 8 to 17
- California - 6 to 18
- Florida - 6 to 16
Check with your state's education department for more details, as state laws may change.
State Exemptions to Compulsory Education
There are a number of different situations and personal preferences that may qualify parents for an exemption to mandatory education for their children. For instance, parents in any state may opt out of public schools in favor of private or parochial institutions. However, these schools typically must be accredited by the state in order to meet the standards used in public schools.
Similarly, parents in any state may choose to homeschool their children, but must follow certain procedures and regulations. For example, New York (which has some of the strictest homeschool regulations) requires an extensive notification and review process for parents who want to homeschool their children, in addition to regular reviews of curriculum.
Other exemptions from compulsory education laws may include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Child has proven to the school board that he/she has acquired equivalent knowledge and skills as that offered by a public school education
- Child has received a high school diploma early
- Child is an emancipated minor
- Child is legally employed (typically part-time or vocation-related work, depending on the state)
- Religious objection (for instance, Amish students are not required to attend school past the eight grade)
Check with your state's education department for specific information about exemptions.
Penalties for Non-Compliance
Parents who fail to comply with state compulsory education laws may be charged with a misdemeanor, punishable upon conviction by a fine or—for particularly serious violations—up to 30 days in jail. As with other misdemeanor sentences, many states also provide alternatives such as counseling or community service. In Texas, an attendance officer employed by the school district may refer a child to juvenile court of file a criminal complaint against the child's parents for failure to attend school.