Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Compulsory Attendance Laws in the US in 1914

United States Bureau of Education

Bulletin, 1914, No. 1 . . . . . . Whole Number 572




Compiled by the Library Division of the

Bureau of Education, under the Direc-

tion of John D. Wolcott, Acting Librarian


January 1, 1914


Government Printing Office


Letter of Transmittal.


Department of the Interior,

Bureau of Education,

Washington, October 7, 1913

SIR: A half dozen States are still without laws requiring parents and guardians to give their children and wards an opportunity to profit by the provisions made by these States for their education, and thousands of children are growing up without that education and training necessary for life, for making a living, for membership in society, and for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship..... (page 5)



Compulsory Attendance Laws in the United States.

By W. S. Deffenbaugh,

Specialist in School Administration, Bureau of Education.

The formulation of effective compulsory attendance laws has been one of the problems confronting legislators and school officials for the past 70 years. The most marked advance in enacting such laws has been made since 1890. Prior to that date only 27 States and the District of Columbia had compulsory laws, and man of these were inoperative. Now 43 States have them. How effectively the laws of the several States are enforced it is not possible to determine, as statistics of enforcement are lacking in most of the States and in many of the city reports, but that many essential factors are wanting in some of the laws will be evident when a careful study is made of the tabular digest presented in this bulletin.

In the following pages the writer has attempted to call to the attention of the reader a few of the arguments for such laws and some of the factors necessary in their enforcement. The reports of city and State superintendents and articles prepared by practical school men are quoted freely.

To introduce the subject, and to help the reader recall the early history of compulsory education in this country, a brief historical sketch of the early Massachusetts law is presented.

In 1642 the General Court of the Massachusetts colony issued the following order(Records mass. Colony, Vol. II, p.6.):

This court, taking into consideration the great neglect of many parents and masters in training up their children in learning and labor, and other employments which may be profitable to the Commonwealth, do hereupon order and decree that in every town the chosen men appointed for managing the prudential affairs of the same shall henceforth stand charged with the care of the redress of this evil, so as they shall be sufficiently punished by fines for the neglect thereof, upon presentment of the grand jury, or other information or complaint in any court within this jurisdiction; and for this end they, or the greater number of them, shall have power to take account from time to time of all parents and masters, and of their children, concerning their calling and employment of their children, especially of their ability to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of their country, and to impose fines upon such as shall refuse to render such accounts to them when they shall be required.

This law did not prescribe where the children should be taught. All it demanded was that they be given instruction in certain subjects; but five years later, in 1647, this was remedied by the following order (Records Mass. Colony, Vol. II, p. 203.):

It being one chiefe project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the scriptures, as in former times, keeping them in an unknowne tongue, so in these latter times, by perswading them from the use of tongues, so that at least, the true sence and meaning of the originall might bee clouded with glosses of saint seeming deceivers; and that learning may not bee buried in the grave of our forefathers in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our indeavors; It is therefore ordered by this courte and authority therof, That every towneshipp within this jurisdiction, after that the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty howsholders, shall then forthwith appointe one within theire towne to teach all such children as shall resorte to him, to write and read; whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in generall, by way of supplye, as the major part of those who order the prudentials of the towne shall appointe; provided, that those who send theire children, bee not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other townes. And it is further ordered, that where any towne shall increase to the number of one hundred families or howsholders, they shall sett up a grammar schoole, the masters thereof being able to instruct youths so far as they may bee fitted for the university; and if any town neglect the performance hereof above one yeare, then every such towne shall pay five pounds per annum to the next such schoole, till they shall perform this order.

These two laws embodied the principles upon which compulsory education rests in declaring that all children should be educated, that the parent of the community must provide suitable education, and that the State may compel the establishment and maintenance of schools and determine what these schools shall teach.

When the development of the factory system began in Massachusetts in the early part of the nineteenth century and the population began to concentrate in the villages and cities, it was found that children could do much of the work in the factories and they were taken away from school for that purpose. It then became evident that further legislation was needed, and a "factory law" was enacted in 1842; but this was practically a dead letter, at least in its relation to school attendance. So great had the evils of nonattendance and truancy become that Horace Mann gave especial attention to it in his reports, and by 1850 public sentiment had become sufficiently aroused to pass a truancy law. A compulsory attendance act followed in 1852, and that was amended in 1859 to read as follows:

SECTION 1. Every person having under his control a child between the ages of 8 and 14 years shall annually during the continuance of his control send such child to some public school in the city or town in which he resides at least 12 weeks, if the public schools of such city or town so long continue, 6 weeks of which time shall be consecutive, and for every neglect of such duty the parent offending shall forfeit to the use of such city or town a sum not exceeding $20; but if it appears upon the inquiry of the truant officers or school committee of any city or town, or upon the trial of any prosecution, that the party so neglecting was not able, by reason of poverty to send such child to school, or to furnish him with the means of education, or that such child has been otherwise furnished with the means of education for a like period of time, or has already acquired the branches of learning taught in the public schools, or that his bodily or mental condition has been such as to prevent his attendance at school or application to study for the period required, the penalty before mentioned shall not be incurred.

SECTION 2. The truant officers and the school committees of the several cities and towns shall inquire into all cases of neglect of the duty prescribed in the preceding section and ascertain from the persons neglecting the reasons, if any, therefor; and shall forthwith give notice of all violations, with the reasons, to the treasurer of the city or town, and if such treasurer willfully neglects or refuses to prosecute any person liable to the penalty provided for in the preceding section he shall forfeit the sum of $20. (U.S. Commis. of Ed., Rep., 1888-89, p. 472.)

The failure of these early laws to secure attendance was apparent, and Supt. White took up the subject in 1870, saying: (Ibid., pp. 473-74.)

I am fully convinced, after many years of observation and inquiry, enactments relating to this matter (absenteeism) are ill-adapted to their purpose, discordant, and incapable of execution, and therefore need a careful and thorough revision, to which ample time and thought should be given. I therefore respectfully recommend that the present legislature be requested to pass a resolve directing the board of education or such other competent body as may be deemed proper to take into consideration all existing laws relating to school attendance, truancy, absenteeism, and the employment of children in manufacturing establishments, and inquire what alterations and amendments are needed to combine said enactments into a uniform, consistent, and efficient code adapted to the present views and wants of the public.

By 1890 the law had been so amended that is was well enforced, according to Supt. J. W. Dickinson, who at that time reported to the United States Bureau of Education that "the compulsory law operates well and is generally obeyed." (Ibid., p. 486.) The obedience which seemed to satisfy Mr. Dickinson would probably fail to meet the approval of the officers of the present day; but constant improvement has been made since then both in laws and in the machinery for their enforcement.

The Massachusetts compulsory education laws have been model for imitation in other States of the Union, and all of them now have such laws except Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, (A compulsory law applying to the cities of Charleston and Columbia was enacted in South Carolina in 1876, but it was never enforced and was repealed soon afterwards.) and Texas. The laws of Maryland, Louisiana, Virginia, and Arkansas, however, do not apply to the entire State.

The following table gives the date of the enactment of the first compulsory attendance law in each State:

Date of enactment of compulsory attendance laws.






West Virginia.1897




New Hampshire..1871

Rhode Island.1883











New Mexico…...1872






New York……..1874


North Carolina.1907










New Jersey……1875




Though nearly all the States in the Union have enacted compulsory attendance laws, each State has had to overcome much opposition on the part of those who argued that such laws are un-American in principle, in that they interfere with the personal liberty of the parent. In 1891 and 1893 Gov. Pattison, of Pennsylvania, vetoed compulsory education bills on that ground. In 1895, when Gov. Hastings signed a similar bill, he did so only because he did not wish to obtrude his judgment in the matter, which was against the bill.

The plea that such laws interfere with personal liberty has, however, never been recognized by the courts, and all such laws now on the statutes of the several States are considered constitutional.

Among the arguments offered by those opposed to the enactment of compulsory attendance laws are these: (1) A new crime is created; (2) it interferes with the liberty of parents; (3) new powers are arrogated by the Government; (4) it is un-American and not adapted to our free institutions; (5) compulsory education is monarchical in its origin and history; (6) attendance is just as great without the law.

These points of opposition were met in 1872 by B.G. Northrop, secretary of the Connecticut State Board of Education, as follows (An. Rep. Conn. Bd. of Ed., 1872, p. 32):

Such a law would create a new crime. I reply, it ought to. To bring up children in ignorance is a crime and should be treated as such. As the most prolific source of criminality it should be under the ban of legal condemnation and the restraint of legal punishment. All modern civilization and legislation has made new crimes. Barbarism recognizes but few. To employ children in factories who are under 10 years of age or who have not attended school, or to employ minors under 18 years of age more than 12 hours a day, is each a new crime.

It interferes with the liberty of parents. I reply again, it ought to, when they are incapacitated by vice or other causes for the performance of essential duties as parents. Many other laws limit personal liberty. The requisition to serve on juries, or to aid the sheriff in arresting criminals, or the exactions of military service in the hour of the country's need--these and many other laws do this. If the law may prohibit the owner from practicing cruelty upon his horse or ox, it may restrain the parent from dwarfing the mind and debasing the character of his child. If the State may imprison and punish juvenile criminals, it may remove the causes o their crime and its consequences of loss, injury, and shame. The child has rights which not even a parent may violate. He may not rob his child of the sacred right of a good education. The law would justly punish a parent for starving his child, and more mischief is done by starving the mind than famishing the body. The right of a parent to his children is founded on his ability and disposition to supply their wants of body and mind. When a parent is disqualified by intemperance, cruelty, or insanity, society justly assumes the control of the children. In ancient Greece the law gave almost unlimited authority to the father over his offspring. The same is true in some semibarbarous nations now. In all Christian lands the rights of the parents are held to imply certain correlative duties, and the duty to educate is as positive as to feed and clothe. Neglected children, when not orphans in fact, are virtually such, their parents ignoring their duties, and thus forfeiting their rights as parents. The State should protect the helpless, and especially these, its defenseless wards, who otherwise will be vicious as well as weak.

It arrogates new power by the Government. So do all quarantine and hygienic regulations and laws for the abatement of nuisances. Now, ignorance is as noxious as the most offensive nuisance, and more destructive than bodily contagions. Self-protection is a fundamental law of society.

It is un-American and unadapted to our free institutions. To put the question in the most offensive form, it may be asked, "Would you have policemen drag your children to school?" I answer, "Yes, if it will prevent his dragging them to jail a few years hence." But this law in our land would invoke no "dragging" and no police espionage or inquisitorial searches. With the annual enumeration and the school registers in hand, and the aid of the teachers and others most conversant with each district, school officers could easily learn who are the absentees. * * *

Compulsory education is monarchical in its origin and history. Common as is this impression it is erroneous. Connecticut may justly claim to be one of the first States in the world to establish the principle of compulsory education. On this point our earliest laws were most rigid. They need but slight modification to adapt them to the changed circumstances of the present. Before the peace of Westphalia, before Prussia existed as a kingdom, and while Frederick William was only "elector of Brandenburg," Connecticut adopted coercive education. * * *

Attendance would be just as large without the law as it is now. I may be so. But so far from being an objection, this fact is strong proof of the efficiency of that law which has itself helped create so healthful a public sentiment. Were the law to be abrogated to-morrow the individual and general interest in public education would remain. The same might have been said of Connecticut for more than 170 years after the adoption of compulsory education. During all that period a native of this State of mature age unable to read the English language would have been looked upon as a prodigy. Still, in Connecticut as well as in Germany, it was the law itself which greatly aided in awakening public interest and in fixing the habits, associations, and traditions of the people.

To the argument that modern compulsory education laws are monarchical in their origin and history, J.W. Perrin replies: (Compulsory Education in New England, p.29.)

Common as the idea is that obligatory laws originated in Prussia, it is wholly erroneous. Nearly two centuries had elapsed from Luther's famous address in 1524, before Frederick William I issued those mandatory orders that developed into compulsory attendance laws. These orders were issued October 24, 1713, and nearly four years later, September 28, 1717, the King issued the first law. Then such laws had been tried by the State of Geneva, the Estates of Navarre, and the Duchy of Wurttemberg. Such a law had been in successful operation in Massachusetts for 75 years and in Connecticut for nearly the same time.