Across the United States, there has been much discussion about restructuring schools to make them more effective. It is time to include in that discussion a reexamination of state laws requiring students to attend school.
Forty-nine states have compulsory attendance statutes that require young people up to the age of 16 to go to school; Mississippi is alone in requiring students to attend school only up to age 14. While these statutes address the quantity of education students should receive, they have a negative impact on the quality that is provided. Put another way, compulsory attendance laws are hurting our nation’s system of secondary education. We think Mississippi has the right idea; states should lower the age for compulsory attendance to 14.
Americans have long recognized the importance of education in developing citizens who can effectively take part in a democratic society. In an effort to produce such citizens, every state by 1918 had passed a law requiring elementary education for all students. Not until the 1930s did the idea of universal high school attendance gain currency. During that decade, most states raised the compulsory school age, hoping to remove teenage workers from a depressed job market. Although the Depression ended more than 50 years ago, the laws requiring compulsory high school attendance are still on the books. There is little evidence to suggest, however, that secondary school is the appropriate place for all young people. Educating students should be our number one concern, not keeping teenagers out of the job market.
The truth is that compulsory attendance statutes are extremely costly and ultimately ineffective with non-attenders over the age of 14. Each year, millions of state, federal, and local tax dollars earmarked for education go toward efforts merely to get teenagers to attend school. A large part of this money is spent on highly paid school administrators who monitor attendance and track down violators. In addition, many teachers and other school workers put in hours each week on a continuum of preventative measures, including efforts to get parents to reinforce the importance of good attendance. In most schools, counseling, special education programs, and basic-skills classes are offered in an attempt to keep students in school. Some states have even taken to fining or in other ways penalizing parents who either are unwilling or unable to get their teenage children to attend school regularly. Despite all these efforts, many students still have poor attendance records.
Take, for example, our middleclass high school in Littleton, Colo. Attendance reports show that, on average, 4 percent of students under the age of 16 are illegally absent every day. The administrator in charge of attendance spends about 70 percent of his time, and 80 percent of his administrative assistant’s time, dealing with non-attenders. Figuring salaries alone, this amounts to an annual expenditure of $50,000 to $60,000. There are some 11,500 high schools across the country. All are different, but if we generalize our school’s numbers for the nation, we could easily be spending $500 million to $700 million of education money each year just trying to enforce attendance requirements. This expense is unjustifiable to the overwhelming majority of students who attend class regularly and willingly.
Juvenile courts are also wasting taxpayers’ dollars dealing with this problem. In our district, any student under 16 who misses more than 35 class periods without a legal excuse must be reported for truancy. At that point, a court hearing is often set. The judge usually orders the offender to attend class and to perform some community service. All this, of course, costs the state money. The final and strongest coercion tactic available to the court is a several-day commitment to a juvenile facility. But by the time this term is completed, the student is so far behind in classes that returning to school is often an educational waste.
The attendance statutes undermine the educational system in other ways, as well. When coercive efforts are successful in getting non-attenders to attend school, the students are, at best, passive learners who do not complete much work. At worst, they are disruptive and interfere with the learning of other students. In an effort to afford the infrequent attenders some experience of success, acceptable performance standards are often lowered, resulting in lower achievement throughout the class. And since the usual consequence of misbehavior is suspension, which feeds into what non-attenders want, teachers are hindered in their effort to maintain acceptable class behavior standards. So, by compelling attendance, we end up devaluing education for all students. School should be a right, not a requirement.
Historically, court cases have established that the state has the legal right to require students to attend school. The existing situation, however, makes it clear that states do not have the power or resources to actually accomplish this. The courts have also said that attendance laws must be “enforced with reason.” We believe it is not reasonable to try to enforce them once a child is 14 and sees no purpose in attending school.
Changing the laws, rather than trying to enforce the old ones, would allow the system to focus its efforts on education, not chasing students. This change would give school administrators more time to focus on educational programs. The time teachers currently spend dealing with students who have no intention of working could be spent on students who want to learn. The juvenile courts could concentrate their efforts on hearing true criminal cases. And social workers could work with families to build healthier environments that encourage learning.
If our goal is to make schools effective for as many students as possible, we should rewrite our compulsory attendance statutes. These laws were put in place for economic, not educational, reasons. Today, they are a financial drain and provide no educational benefit. Changing them will empower students to learn and teachers to teach.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as It’s Time to Change State Attendance Laws