Mandatory School Attendance

In the 19th century, civic leaders in many states advocated for compulsory education laws and the creation of public school systems. One motivation behind this movement was the desire for children to learn such basic skills as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Today, there is broad agreement that education is one of the most important services provided by governments. Some critics of public schools argue that states should fund private education as well, but virtually no one contends that they should revoke compulsory attendance laws or eliminate funding for education.

In addition to teaching basic skills, many 19th century reformers wanted public education to help turn immigrants into good, democratic, and Protestant Americans. When Catholics objected to requirements that they send their children to what were effectively Protestant schools, they were charged with being “sectarian,” and Protestant civic leaders were not amused by Catholic attempts to receive a share of state education funding.

Oregon’s Ban on Private Schools

As biased as public schools tended to be toward Protestantism, it was rare for states to require Catholics and other dissenters to attend them. Oregon attempted to achieve such an outcome by banning all private schools in 1922. Although the initiative did not specifically prohibit Catholic schools, virtually every private school in the state was Roman Catholic. In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the law to be a violation of the right of parents to control their children’s education.

Public schools became noticeably less Protestant (or, for that matter, religious) with the advent of the Supreme Court’s modern Establishment Clause jurisprudence. Notably, teacher-led prayer was declared to be unconstitutional in 1962, as was devotional Bible reading in 1963. Parents who wanted to send their children to religious schools were free to do so, provided they could afford private school tuition. In some cases, states attempted to aid these schools, but much of this aid was declared to be unconstitutional in the 1970s and 1980s. Because the licensing of private schools was often onerous and homeschooling was rare at this time, parents who desired a religious education for their children were often unable to provide one.

Wisconsin v. Yoder

Included among these parents were a group of Amish who lived in New Glarus, Wisconsin. These families did not object to sending their children to public schools through the eighth grade, but they refused to send them to the public high school. Although Amish generally do not go to court to resolve disputes, an attorney acting on their behalf objected that the Free Exercise Clause required the state to exempt them from the state’s compulsory attendance law. In 1972, a unanimous Supreme Court (with a partial dissent by Justice Douglas) agreed.

Since 1972, states have liberalized their compulsory attendance laws and their regulation of private schools and homeschooling so that it is far easier to remove children from public schools. Moreover, the Supreme Court has allowed states to increase aid to these schools, thus making them more affordable. These laws were changed for a complex set of reasons, but among them was the desire of legislators to accommodate citizens who desire a faith-based education for their children.

Choice Helps, Not Hinders, Children

States have a powerful interest in ensuring that children are educated. Yet since the early 1980s, they have been increasingly willing to craft exemptions from compulsory attendance laws. Because students educated at home or in private schools regularly outperform students in public schools, it seems reasonable to conclude that such accommodations have not had a detrimental effect on the quality of education in these states.

This is the fifth installment in a series by Mark Hall on religious freedom. Check out the other installments below.