Compulsory education laws require children to attend a public or state-accredited private school for a certain period of time. There are certain exceptions, most notably homeschooling, but virtually all states have mandates for when children must begin school and how old they must be before dropping out. Typically, children must start school by the age of six and remain enrolled until they are at least 16. These laws were put in place not only to improve literacy rates but also to discourage the widespread child labor practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Origins of Compulsory Education
In ancient Judea, even before Plato's The Republic popularized the idea of mandatory education, Jewish leaders required parents to provide at least an informal education for their children. In fact, rabbis founded a number of schools throughout the region and encouraged parents to send their children to school beginning at the age of six. But the Aztec Triple Alliance (which ruled modern-day central Mexico in the 15th and early 16th centuries) is widely credited as being the first nation to make education mandatory for all children.
With the Reformation (beginning in 1524), Martin Luther called for mandatory schooling laws to ensure that more Christians could read the Bible on their own. As the Reformation spread throughout Europe, so did the enactment of mandatory education laws. But while Scotland established an education mandate for the children of privileged families in 1496, this mandate didn't include commoners until the country enacted the School Establishment Act of 1616.
The concept of compulsory school attendance would gradually spread to other parts of the world, primarily based on the systems set up by Prussia in 1763.
Early Compulsory Education Laws in the U.S.
Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to enact a compulsory education law in 1852, having already passed a similar law in 1647 when it was still a British colony. The 1852 law required every city and town to offer primary school, focusing on grammar and basic arithmetic. Parents who refused to send their children to school were fined and (in some cases) stripped of their parental rights, and their children apprenticed to others.
Prior to the Massachusetts law and in other states without such laws, education typically was provided by private schools run by churches. Since they also charged tuition, poorer children were excluded or received informal schooling at home. That would change during the immigration boom between the 19th and 20th centuries, as education was seen as the best way to assimilate immigrant children.
During that time, numerous states enacted compulsory education laws designed to take education out of the hands of parochial schools and primarily into the purview of state-run, public schools. These actions were taken in a growing response to fear of "immigrant" values and the Catholic Church itself. The Supreme Court later overturned these so-called "compulsory education" laws that required students to attend public schools only.
Another motivation was the growing public concern over child labor and the belief that compulsory attendance at school would discourage factory owners from exploiting children. In fact, Alabama temporarily repealed its compulsory education law in response to pressure from a large textile company in the state.
Mississippi was the last state to pass a law requiring school attendance in 1917. Still, enforcement of these state laws was largely ineffective until states began to realize the value of an educated workforce.
Current State of Compulsory Education
While compulsory schooling is still the norm, several exceptions have been made for specific groups of people opposed to the laws. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court (Wisconsin v. Yoder) ruled in 1972 that Amish parents were exempt from such laws past eight grade. Also, states typically grant exemptions to those who home school their children as long as they meet the standards required of public and state-accredited private schools.
Additionally, many states offer work release permits that allow students to work limited hours outside of the school during normal school hours.