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Compulsory Schooling Laws: What If We Didn’t Have Them?

This year before the schools were shut down, I had two school hearings on children – minors – making comments that were labeled as threats.  There were no Miranda rights read to the child before the child was questioned, the parents were not called before the police were summoned, the evidence was not preserved before the sentence was given, and there was no due process observed by the governmental body, we call a school district, before the punishment imposed.

Many parents wake up in the morning with the ingrained notion that governmental school is the only source of education for their children.  The notion of schooling their own children or grandchildren  is foreign to them.  This leads to the reaction of dread and doom, when a child does not do well in class or gets in trouble and can not attend school.  Remember Salvador Dali, William Randolph Hearst, Edgar Allen Poe, and Albert Einstein were all kicked out of school – maybe government school is not for everyone.

History books detailing the “common school movement” and the push for universal, compulsory schooling perpetuate the myths that Americans were illiterate prior to mass schooling, that there were limited education options available, and that mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force was the surest way toward equality.

In truth, literacy rates were quite high, particularly in Massachusetts, where the first compulsory schooling statute was passed in 1852. Historians Boles and Gintis report that approximately three-quarters of the total U.S. population, including slaves, was literate¹.

The primary catalyst for compulsory schooling was a wave of massive immigration in the early to mid-1800s that made lawmakers fearful. Many of these immigrants were Irish Catholics escaping the deadly potato famine, and they threatened the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant social order of the time. In 1851, the editor of The Massachusetts Teacher, William Swan, wrote:

“In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children. If left to their direction the young will be brought up in idle, dissolute, vagrant habits, which will make them worse members of society than their parents are; instead of filling our public schools, they will find their way into our prisons, houses of correction and almshouses. Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.”

So what would happen if these inherently flawed compulsory schooling laws were eliminated?

First, power would tilt away from the state and toward the family. Without legal force compelling school attendance, parents would have the freedom and flexibility to assume full responsibility for their child’s education. They would not need government permission to homeschool, as is currently required in the majority of U.S. states. Private schools would not need to submit their attendance records to the state to show compliance. Public schools could still be available to those who wanted them, as they were prior to the 1852 law; but government schooling would no longer be the default education option.

As more education choices sprouted, competition would lower prices, making access to these new choices more widespread.

Because the state would no longer need to bless the creation of various private schools and ratify their curriculum and attendance protocols, an assortment of education options would emerge. As more education choices sprouted, competition would lower prices, making access to these new choices more widespread.

Without the state mandating school attendance for most of childhood, in some states up to age 18, there would be new pathways to adulthood that wouldn’t rely so heavily on state-issued high school diplomas. As the social reformer Paul Goodman wrote in his book New Reformation: “Our aim should be to multiply the paths of growing up, instead of narrowing the one existing school path.”

Eliminating compulsory schooling laws would break the century-and-a-half stranglehold of schooling on education. It would help to disentangle education from schooling and reveal many other ways to be educated, such as through non-coercive, self-directed education, or “unschooling.”

Even the most adamant education reformers often stop short of advocating for abolishing compulsory schooling statutes, arguing that it wouldn’t make much difference. But stripping the state of its power to define, control, and monitor something as beautifully broad as education would have a large and lasting impact on re-empowering families, encouraging educational entrepreneurs, and creating more choice and opportunity for all learners.

My wife and I homeschool our children.  I did not know what that meant when we first started, but now I am proud to say that we are homeschoolers.   It is a blessing to have children, and we view it as our responsibility and our obligation to give them every opportunity we can to educate them to be not just contributors, but revolutionist within society.

When I had a deposition in Boston, because we home school we decided to not just teach our kids about the past, but to have them walk it.  This is the glory of working outside of the compulsory schooling laws.  Homeschooling, much like being an attorney, has a stigma – that is a stigma that I wear proudly at home and at the law firm.

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