The Education Reform Primer: The Origin of School Attendance Laws in the United States

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

This blog will explore some of the influences from the last 375 years (mostly from the last 100 or so) that have shaped public school education and made it what it is today. So stay tuned, add this to your favorites, and prepare to receive a bit of education on education.

The Origin of School Attendance Laws in the United States

by Matthew R. Plain

The General Court of Massachusetts enacted the first compulsory attendance law in the United States in 1852.  The law read, in pertinent part: “Every person who shall have any child under his control between the ages of eight and fourteen years, shall send such child to some public school within the town or city in which he resides, during at least twelve weeks, if the public schools within such town or city shall be so long kept, in each and every year during which such child shall be under his control, six weeks of which shall be consecutive.”

Though under this law children were required to attend school in their resident town or city, the law made exceptions for children who a) attended school outside of the city or town, b) obtained a comparable education, c) were otherwise restricted from attending, whether by physical limitation or economic means.  The law also outlined penalties for truancy.  Other states would gradually adopt similar laws through the end of the 19th and the first quarter of the twentieth century, with Mississippi becoming the last state to enact a compulsory attendance law in 1918.

Several reasons have been advanced as the rationale behind compulsory attendance laws:  improve literacy rates of the poor, assimilate the growing immigrant population, and keeping young children from the workplace.  Though our compulsory attendance laws have evolved over time, they still tend to include age ranges, length of school year requirements, health requirements like proof of immunizations, exceptions for attendance at private institutions or for home-schooling, and penalties for truancy.  In any event, the oldest of our compulsory attendance laws is less than two hundred years old.  In the grand scheme of things, compulsory attendance is relatively new, so expect continued evolution of the concept.

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including charter schools, charter management organizations, private schools, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York City. For more information, please click here.

Matt Plain is a Partner at Barton Gilman focusing his practice on education law, including school governance, administrative law, labor and employment, special education, and contract drafting and disputes. In addition, Matt is currently serving his second term as an elected member of the East Greenwich School Committee. In this capacity, he chairs the district’s policy subcommittee and serves on the negotiating team. Matt also teaches Education Reform and Policy at Roger Williams University School of Education. He is a former public school teacher and holds a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction. Matt has been named a 2018 Best Lawyer in America in Education Law, a New England Super Lawyer Rising Star, and a 40 Under Forty honoree by Providence Business News.