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The Sneak Attack on Parents' Rights: Expanding Compulsory Attendance

By Chris Klicka
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #44, 2002.

Toss the toddlers in the paddywagon and haul them off to school. And make high school kids attend more years, too. Crazy? Then read how our opponents tried to expand compulsory attendance age this year... and how home-schoolers (mostly) stopped them.
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Chris Klicka

Compulsory attendance ages - who really cares when children must attend school? Well, you should care. Here is why:

Since the early 1900's, states have enacted and enforced compulsory attendance laws. These laws specify the ages children are required to attend school. At first, the required ages were 7 to 14 or 8 to 12. Gradually the required ages expanded as the public school become more established and sophisticated.

The trend is the steady expansion of compulsory attendance ages on the lower end to age three and the higher end to age 18. The only consistently strong force opposing this gradual control of our children by the states in the last 15 years has been the homeschoolers.

This past year, several bills backed by the National Education Association and the public school lobbying groups, were introduced in many state legislatures to broaden the compulsory attendance age.

While these bills seem innocuous, all homeschool parents - in fact, all parents for that matter - should be very concerned with this legislation. Here are several reasons why expanding compulsory attendance ages is a bad idea.

Expansion of State Control over Children

The first reason for opposing the expansion of compulsory attendance ages is the resulting control states gain over homeschooling families and parents in general. Even if a state has a reasonable homeschool law, compulsory attendance age expansion should be opposed because it will increase the state's jurisdiction over our children. Homeschool parents and their children will be subject to oversight and potential investigation for more years. It will require homeschool families to submit to one more year of governmental red tape, and be exposed to one more year of the threat of legal action or subpoena in the event of an accusation of a violation. Also in many states, more notices, test scores, portfolios, or other paperwork will have to be submitted.

We need to decrease the required ages to limit the authority of government over our children.

The bottom line is that parental freedom is at stake.

Limits the Flexibility of Parent-directed Education

One of the chief benefits of homeschooling is the ability it gives parents to tailor their child's education to best suit his or her needs. A child may be a slow starter who would benefit by waiting a year before beginning school. Or a high schooler may have accelerated his or her education and may be ready to graduate and continue on to college before traditional students. Who is in the better position to judge whether a child is mature enough to begin schooling and whether an adequate education has been given: the parents who spend 24 hours a day with the child, or a state legislative body?

States that attempt to expand the compulsory attendance age are essentially broadening the control states have over homeschooling families. Those families must then comply with the education laws of these states for an additional number of years for their children. This places a significant burden on homeschool students who are perhaps not ready for a full schedule of schooling or who would like to graduate early.

Formal Schooling at an Early Age is Often Not Effective

Many education experts have concluded that beginning a child's formal education too early may actually result in burnout and poor scholastic performance later. Many scientific studies show that at this young age, children do not have the physical growth and development necessary to benefit long- term from formal education. In fact, many believe efforts to begin formal instruction this early can actually cause long-term harm.

A number of child development researchers have recognized that normal children who are admitted to school too early will often become underachievers and display developmental problems. Dr. David Elkind, Tufts University psychologist, explains

There is really no evidence that early formal institutionalization brings any lasting or permanent benefits for children. By contrast, the risk to the child's motivation, intellectual growth, and self-esteem could well do serious damage to the child's emerging personality. It is reasonable to conclude that the early instruction of young children derives more from the need and priorities of adults than from what we know of good pedagogy for young children.1

One of the most widespread sources of childhood stress is the separation of children from their parents at young ages. Karl Zinsmeister, Adjunct Research Associate at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, says,

Declining parental attachment is an extremely serious risk to children today. The verdict of enormous psychological literature is that time spent with a parent is the very clearest correlate of healthy child development.2

Research indicates it is advisable to move away from formal academic instruction to a developmental approach for early childhood education. Children who are at home with their parents can develop the skills necessary for learning in the day-to-day setting, and thus be prepared for the academic setting.3

Many children are put at risk by compulsory attendance statutes that do not take into account slower maturation rates. Dr. Jean Piaget, long respected in the academic community for his studies in development research, found a child's cognitive abilities usually show maturity between the ages of seven and nine.4

Also, consider Head Start, a federal program that has spent billions of dollars on early education programs for inner city children.

In its early years, extensive studies were undertaken to prove Head Start worked. But the opposite turned out to be true. In 1969, the Westinghouse Learning Corporation found no difference in the behavior and educational achievement between Head Start and other underclass children.

Sixteen years later, the CRS Synthesis Project study, commissioned by HHS, came to the same conclusion. Although children showed "immediate gains," by the second grade "there are no educationally meaningful differences."Many children are put at risk by compulsory attendance statutes that do not take into account slower maturation rates.5

A better title for this huge government program might be "False Start!"

In many instances, rushing children into formal education too soon will exact a heavy toll on the development of those children and weaken the role of family in their lives. Not only is compulsory attendance for young children unnecessary and expensive, but it is counter-productive. Parents should have the right to choose when their children start school.

Increase in Taxes

Another significant impact of expanding the compulsory attendance age would be an inevitable tax increase to pay for more classroom space and more teachers to accommodate the additional students compelled to attend public schools under these proposed laws.

For example, if the District of Columbia were successful in passing its mandatory three-year-old school attendance bill, it would be tremendously expensive. Considering all costs, including the constant supervision necessary for these young children, the DC Council estimates no less than $50 million would be spent for the first year.

Reasons For Opposing Higher Compulsory Attendance Age

Many will argue that raising the compulsory attendance age will reduce the dropout rate. The facts. as seen in the chart to the left, demonstrate otherwise. From 1996-1998, the two states with the highest high school completion rates (Maryland, 94.5%, and North Dakota, 94.7%) compelled attendance only to age 16, but the state with the lowest completion rate (Oregon, 75.4%) compelled attendance to age 18.

Furthermore, older children who do not want to learn cause classroom discipline problems, disruptions, and violence, making learning harder for those who truly want to learn.

When California raised the age of compulsory attendance a few years ago, the disruption caused by unwilling students was so significant that new schools had to be set up just to handle these students and their behavior problems, all at the expense of the taxpayer!

Finally, it would take away the parental freedom to decide if a 16-year-old is ready for college or the workforce. Some 16 year-olds who are not academically inclined benefit more from valuable work experience than being forced to sit in a classroom.

Legislative Battles

Homeschool Legal Defense Association and the state homeschool associations have engaged in many battles this past year opposing the "compulsory attendance age creep." By God's grace, all but one attempt to expand the state's jurisdiction over our children was defeated.

For example, in Illinois, House Bill 795 would have lowered the compulsory school attendance age from seven to six. At the start, this bill passed the Illinois House by a vote of 94 to 19.

One of the reasons H. 795 passed by an overwhelming majority is that sponsor Representative Douglas Scott inaccurately asserted on the House floor that his bill would not affect homeschoolers.

I wrote to Rep. Scott and explained how his statement was in error. I explained that his bill would affect homeschoolers and why we were opposed to the bill. We later learned that this letter was widely circulated in the Senate and helped persuade the senators to defeat the bill. H.B. 795 died in the Senate Rules Committee.

The California Assembly considered a similar bill this summer. Assembly Bill 634 would have lowered the compulsory attendance age for entry into school from 6 to 5 years of age. This requirement would have applied to all children, whether their parents plan to send them to public school or private school (including private homeschools.) The bill passed the Assembly on June 6, and was sent to the Senate. As a result of many HSLDA member's calls to the members of the Senate Education Committee, followed by the testimony presented at the July 11 hearing by Family Protection Ministries and other concerned organizations, A.B. 634's author promised to amend his bill to make it easier for parents to obtain a kindergarten waiver for their children.

During the July 11th hearing, the Senate Education Committee tentatively approved AB 634 by voting to place the bill in suspense file. Finally, on September 6, the Senate Appropriations Committee refused to consider passing AB 634. This was due in large measure to member calls, letters and prayers, and the hard work of Family Protection Ministries and HSLDA members.

Probably the most egregious attempt to expand the compulsory attendance age this year was in Washington, D.C. A Washington, D.C. City Council member is attempting to force parents to comply with compulsory attendance laws for children as young as three years old.

Council member Kevin Chavous introduced DC Bill 14-261, which would require a child to be enrolled in some kind of school setting if the child turns three on or before December 31. Thus, even some two-year-olds would be subject to DC's compulsory attendance law!

This bill stands for the common statist philosophy that parents are essentially unnecessary. But we as parents know that that young children need to spend time in the loving care of their parents. No schoolteacher or day care worker, no matter how well intentioned or educated, can substitute for a parents' love and nurture.

Mr. Chavous has stated publicly that his bill is "consistent with national efforts to lengthen the school day and the academic year" (Washington Post, June 19, 2001). This bill takes one giant step toward the once undreamed-of possibility of a child growing to adulthood rarely seeing his parents. Once the law makes a child subject to compulsory attendance, there is little to prevent lawmakers from demanding that children spend more hours per week and more weeks per year in the system.

Reading is the gateway to education. Compulsory attendance age has usually been set to approximate the age when most children are able to learn to read. Only a very small fraction of two-, three-, and four- year-olds can be taught to read. Because reading is beyond the reach of most of these toddler students, any meaningful education is highly unlikely. The government has no legitimate business compelling attendance when there is such a remote possibility that genuine education will occur. In fact, this bill is little more than government mandated day care attendance.

A Quick Review of the 2001 Legislative Season

In the 2001 legislative season, a total of nine states introduced bills to lower the compulsory attendance age. These states and their respective attempted required age changes were Arizona (6 to 5), Alaska (7 to 6), Hawaii (6 to 5), North Dakota (7 to 6), Mississippi (7 to 5), Missouri (7 to 5), Oregon (7 to 5), Pennsylvania (8 to 6), California (6 to 5), and Illinois (7 to 6). Primarily homeschoolers and homeschool lobbyists defeated them all.

Eight states tried to increase the age. Only Louisiana passed. These states were: Kentucky (16 to 18), Louisiana (17 to 18), New Mexico (16 to 17), Mississippi (17 to 18), New York (16 to 17), Missouri (16 to 17), Vermont (17 to 18) Michigan (16 to 18), and Rhode Island (16 to 17).

Make a Difference

I urge you to stay informed and active by joining both the Homeschool Legal Defense Association and your state homeschool association.

Although changes in compulsory attendance ages seem harmless at first glance, a closer look exposes the many problems and dangers to our freedom.

For more information, see my book Homeschooling in the United States: A Legal Analysis (2001), published by the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. I update this each year and it summarizes all the compulsory attendance laws and homeschool requirements in the 50 states. To obtain this book or join the Homeschool Legal Defense Association to help preserve homeschool freedoms, check out our web page at www.hslda.org.


  1. Elkind, David. "Making Healthy Educational Choices," Miseducation: Pre-schoolers at Risk. 1987
  2. Fuller, Cheri. "Early Schooling: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone?" Southwest Policy Institute Policy Study, No. 2, 1989. p. 3
  3. Lynn, Lee Anne and Vicki Winstead. "Mandatory kindergarten means parents lose even more control." The Birmingham News, June 5, 1991. Also see Winstead, Vicki. "A Study in Support of Parental Choice in Early Childhood Education." published by Eagle Forum of Alabama, 1991
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
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