The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Compulsory School Attendance: An Idea Past Its Prime?" by The Educational Forum, v 61, Winter, 1997.

Original Title:
School Choice and the Death of Compulsory Education
by Barry McGhan

The growing clamor for school choice obscures an important message--that the era of American compulsory education is coming to an end. The principal effect of the "choice" movement will be to challenge the idea that every child between the ages of 6 and 16 has to be in class every school day.

Interest in school choice is not another educational fad, but instead is rooted in real and perceived social changes that are incongruent with compulsory attendance regulations. Hopefully, we will not throw the baby out with the bath water and allow public education itself to be dismantled. In fact, if compulsory education is removed from public education, much of the current complaining about schools should recede.

Compulsory education has not yet been openly challenged by school choice proposals, in part, because it is so deeply ingrained in our thinking. "Compulsory education" is virtually synonymous with "public education." It has been around so long and is so widespread that we don't even see it as a separate element of schooling. There are, however, signs that this may be starting to change. In recent months, news stories on the following topics have appeared:

  • The American Federation of Teacher's "zero tolerance" discipline policy (Portner 1995);

  • The Colorado legislature's re-consideration of compulsory attendance regulations (Miller 1995);
  • The governor of New York's support for a rule that gives teachers the right to suspend students for up to 10 days (Lindsay 1996).

These examples all circle around the idea that schools need more control than compulsory attendance laws allow.

To get a sharper image of the connection between choice and compulsion we need to clarify what "school choice" means. For most, it generally means that parents will be able to choose schools in ways other than (1) moving to a specific neighborhood or (2) paying for private school tuition. Typical choice proposals include:

  • cross-district enrollment laws (which allow students to attend schools outside of the district where they live);

  • public charter school legislation (recently passed in various states);
  • public vouchers for private schools.

Interest in school choice appears to come from a belief that introducing a market system into education will create competition for students and cause schools to improve. Although there is little hard evidence for or against this idea it has a certain appeal to some people. Indeed, competition may improve education, but only if schools have the freedom to choose whom they will work with.

The idea that schools also need freedom to choose is the other--largely unexamined--side of the school choice coin. Call the first side "parental school choice" and its reciprocal "institutional school choice." As we shall see, the institution's "choice" is the most important of the two sides, because it provides the context in which parental choice becomes desirable. Moreover, institutional school choice is the essential ingredient in parental school choice. Without it, the idea that a market system can improve education will be largely a false promise.

Data from two recent surveys by the Public Agenda Foundation provide the clues that lead to this conclusion. The survey called "First Things First" (Walsh 1994) found that the public values safety, order, and basic skills above all else. Now, a new survey called "Given the Circumstances" (Ponessa 1996) reveals that the public believes that private schools outperform public schools. This latter finding is in spite of the fact that research comparing public and private schools is inconclusive--some studies show private schools do better, others show public schools do better (Cibulka 1989).

Why does the public have a higher opinion of private than public schools, when even the experts disagree on their comparative performances? Answer ... because the public believes that private schools provide a more controlled learning environment.

People know that private schools have two organizational advantages which they believe lead to instructional benefits. The first advantage is that private schools do not have to put up with every out-of-control student or parent that comes along. Private schools can say "our school just isn't for you" and make it stick. Thus, they appear to provide greater assurance that they can deliver basic skills. All of the forms of school choice now being discussed will be unsatisfactory to parents unless the schools their children attend have the choice not to work with uncooperative students. The rub of compulsory attendance is not just that students are compelled to go, but that public schools are compelled to take them!

The second organizational advantage the public knows private schools have is that incompetent teachers and administrators are more easily removed. Ineffective public school evaluation policies allow poor teachers to gain tenure. Once tenure is gained, laws and union contracts are so protective of employee rights that incompetents often continue to work for years after they are first challenged.

Of these two differences between private and public schools, the idea of easing employment regulations to facilitate dealing with incompetence is well known and often discussed. For that reason, and because it is probably a small problem in most schools, it will not be covered here. The idea of changing compulsory attendance, however, is much less frequently mentioned and has not been part of recent discussions of school choice proposals. It will be the focus of the rest of this essay.

Voluntary Public Education

Are there additional reasons to believe that parental choice implies institutional choice, and that eliminating compulsory school attendance laws is a rational idea? I think the answer is "Yes."

Compulsory school attendance is a 19th Century idea that has apparently outlived its usefulness. It came into existence during a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization, when keeping children out of the streets and workplaces was as important to the growing union movement's interest in employment as it was to the social reformers of the time (Gumbert and Spring 1974). It fit the country's view of itself as a modern nation ready to take its place with other world powers.

The time has come--at this dawn of a new century--to make K-12 public school attendance voluntary again. Why? The short answer is that schools are especially susceptible to the increasing disorder in our society. Poll after poll shows that parents are worried about gangs, drugs, violence, and discipline (Elam and Rose 1995). Research shows that these negative elements from society are appearing among younger and younger children (Montgomery 1996). Parents want schools that are in control of their internal environment--and they'd love it if those schools were in their own neighborhoods. Teachers want to work in schools where they spend their time teaching rather than dealing with disruptive behavior. Although there are no absolute guarantees of a safe and orderly environment, eliminating compulsory attendance will give schools an important measure of control they now lack.

States need to provide voluntary public education systems. In such systems, people could be offered the equivalent of 13 years of free public instruction any time during their lives, but only if they want it. My view is based on both personal experience and theory.

Personal Experience

For seven years I taught in a public alternative high school for dropouts and other at-risk students. Two out of three students at this school became winners. The key element in the school's success was its option to drop those students with whom it couldn't work. This control created a purposeful climate that allowed troubled students to finally succeed. In short, the staff had the luxury to choose a set of reasonable operational rules and strongly enforce them.

At enrollment, students agreed to abide by a small set of behavioral rules. Breaking some rules, like "no fighting," created an immediate vacancy for someone on the waiting list. Breaking others, like "making progress toward graduation," took longer to create a vacancy because the staff wanted to give as many opportunities as possible before exiting someone from the program. The power to control its internal environment--even with a clientele composed almost entirely of at-risk students--made the school the success it was.

Before I leave this example, I would like to point out that most public school magnet programs probably function like my former alternative school. They draw students from throughout districts that are also divided into attendance areas served by regular public schools. Thus, magnet/alternative schools can act very much like private schools. They have the option to send the uncooperative student back to his or her home school. The power to refuse service (as needed) is probably at least as attractive as any special instructional program that a magnet school might offer. This power, combined with the fact that the instruction is free, is likely to account for the waiting lists and long lines that many magnet schools have at enrollment time.

Organizational Theory

The theory related to the proposal to eliminate compulsory attendance is based on the ideas of sociologist Amitai Etzioni (1961). He developed a system of classifying organizations by the methods they use to require individuals to comply with their rules. The three principal types of compliance are coercive, remunerative, and normative. For example, prisons force compliance; factories purchase it; and churches ask for and inspire compliance. Like churches, schools are best characterized as normative organizations.

Clearly, adults are usually successful in socializing children to adopt the behaviors of a particular family and culture. Most often, however, effective school learning occurs only when students choose to cooperate. That's because schools deal with children in groups, and for only a few hours a day. Under these conditions schools have minimal power--little more than persuasion--to bring about learning. If lack of cooperation is unyielding, and threatens the school's control of the learning process, then disassociation is the only route left. The growing interest in parental school choice shows a fundamental understanding of this concept.

Some will say that schools just need tougher rules; but forced cooperation generally doesn't work. Students become disruptive, and older students skip school. Even outwardly submissive children can be miles away from the business of school in their thoughts. Others will say that teachers merely need to teach in a more engaging manner, yet such measures only go so far. Some students, at certain times in their lives, are simply unmanageable in a group setting. Ultimately, schools cannot effectively coerce or purchase cooperation, and so the voluntary cooperation of students is critical.

Possible Drawbacks

Are there reasons for opposing a shift to voluntary education? For example, would making public school attendance voluntary mean that a significant proportion of the population will go uneducated? Would we become a nation of home-schoolers? Would we throw legions of "undesirables" out onto the streets? Probably not.

At the beginning of this century, when most states enacted compulsory attendance laws, the economic benefit of schooling was not clear to the farmers and factory workers of the day. Getting kids into school back then required the force of law. In our technological world, on the brink of a new century, the importance of a good education is much clearer. Voluntary public school will have plenty of clients.

Also, don't forget the custodial function that schools serve (some would call it babysitting). Home-schooling is an enormous commitment that most families are not prepared to make. Most parents want and need help with child care, even if some are not all that keenly focused on the education that goes with it. Making attendance in public schools voluntary would give the schools an opportunity to encourage parental behavior that promotes good education practice along with safe custody.

Improper kicking out of "undesirables" can be controlled by tightening up the system that allocates money to schools based on their enrollment. Often, school suspension policies are loosely administered and have few negative consequences for administrators and teachers. The practice of dropping students becomes a simplistic solution when a school loses many students over the course of a year with no reduction in staff. In my state, the allocation for a single student is worth about 10% of a teacher's salary. Thus, the elimination of 10 students should also eliminate one staff salary.

Tightened enrollment accounting means that educators would only eliminate students when it is necessary to protect the learning environment of the school. Otherwise, they would be putting themselves at risk.

Some research on schools' expulsion/suspension/dropping practices shows that minorities and students with disabilities are more likely to get kicked out of school than white nondisabled students (Harris and Bennet 1982). If these facts are evidence of discrimination, rather than fair administration of school rules, then developing a close connection between enrollment counts and staffing will reduce it. Educators would have to pay to discriminate. Schools that develop a reputation for a cavalier approach to dropping students would suffer declining enrollments and loss of work for teachers.

Some Implications of Voluntary Public Schooling

Lack of space does not permit me to do more than just list a few implications.

  • No students should be barred from any appropriate public school that has room for them--in or outside their home district.

  • Exclusion should only follow enrollment and always be performance-based
  • All staff should have a voice in which students get dropped, since one or more of them may be at risk for continued employment.
  • Students could be given multiple chances to succeed at a given school. Learning contracts which specify expected behavior for returnees will work.
  • A review/appeals committee composed of parents and teachers could be created for each school.
  • Special programs can be created for difficult students. Such programs would receive grants above normal per-pupil allotments, and could pay higher wages to the teachers who staff them.
  • Voluntary enrollment may increase the variation in student ages for a given level of the curriculum. This implies that non-graded K-12 education programs will need to be developed (i.e., ones that students can access any time in their lives regardless of age).
  • Parents need access to information about the quality of education offered by competing schools. Some system of data collection and distribution needs to be devised so that parents can be knowledgeable education consumers.
  • Children and parents will learn, from their earliest school experience, that there are real limits to inappropriate, uncooperative behavior.
  • Current ideas about the rights and responsibilities of parents, children and educators would undergo change. Rights would be more closely connected to responsibilities.
  • An increased level of civility among all participants will be promoted--providing opportunities for negotiation rather than threats and intimidation.


Perhaps the worst aspect of compulsory attendance is that it creates an unwholesome socio-psychological situation. It excuses people from being responsible for their behavior. Students and parents feel excused from behavior that recognizes the rights of others because the school "owes" them a place. Educators feel excused from taking steps to control inappropriate behavior because they have to take and keep everyone who comes through the door. Compulsory attendance creates a climate of tolerance for intolerable behavior that even permeates the upper levels of high school, where students can be legally dropped.

Compulsory attendance detracts not only from the climate of schools, but from instructional time as well. An often-heard truism is that teachers spend 95% of their time dealing with 5% of their students. Although this estimate may be an exaggeration, it is certainly true that significant portions of instructional time are lost because teachers need to handle repeatedly disruptive students. The elimination of a few students who are not ready to learn will help educators use their time more effectively with the majority who are there to learn.

The proposal to eliminate compulsory attendance must not be treated as a simple solution to a complex set of problems. Changing this one aspect of public education without making other changes won't work. A better system of financial allocations based on enrollment is absolutely critical. Adequate means of protecting students' right of access to public education must be devised, including providing students who have been dropped with options to return when they are demonstrably ready. Curriculum content and delivery will need to be restructured. A convenient system of assessing the quality of schools' performance needs to be developed--one that enables parents to make informed choices.

Public schools play an essential role in the political, economic, and social life of the American people. They provide the educational foundation for the preservation and development of constitutional government and democracy. They provide students with opportunities to gain the knowledge and skills needed to become self-sufficient contributors to society. Finally, public schools provide a common ground for children from many walks of life to interact with each other, and thus learn something about people outside of their own family and social circle. Such common school experiences provide the basis for Americans to interact as citizens and find ways to strengthen their communities. Eliminating compulsory attendance will help preserve public education for future generations of Americans.

With the elimination of compulsory attendance, we also eliminate the need for the most controversial and potentially divisive of the proposals for school choice--public vouchers for private schools. Parents will not need vouchers since their main objective (safe and orderly schools) will be available in every public school. Or, to look at it another way, every public school would effectively become a magnet or charter school.

Creating voluntary public school systems will not satisfy all interested parties. Parents who want a particular religious education (Catholic, Fundamentalist Christian, Jewish, Moslem, etc.) will not be satisfied. Parents who want their offspring to have just the "right" elitist polish and connections that come with certain private schools will not be satisfied. However, taxpayers interested in developing a well-educated and productive populace have no obligation to meet these special needs.

State legislatures will do well to consider creating voluntary public school systems--if for no other reason than to prevent public funds from being siphoned off to current private school students. In fact, legislatures could give districts the option to run a compulsory or voluntary system for students within their boundaries--thus making voluntary education itself voluntary.

Finally, a voluntary tax-supported public education system, where individuals are responsible to get whatever part of a basic education they decide they need and want, is more in keeping with American traditions of freedom, democracy, independence and opportunity than the current system. Making K-12 public school attendance voluntary will truly make education a matter of choice.



  1. Cibulka, J. G. 1989. Searching For Clarity in Public and Private School Comparisons. Educational Researcher. 18(May): 52-55

  2. Elam, S. M. and Rose, L. C. 1995. The 27th Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll of the Public Attitudes Toward The Public Schools. Phi Delta Kappan. 77(September): 41-56.
  3. Etzioni, Amitai. 1961 A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations. New York: The Free Press.
  4. Gumbert, E.B. and Spring, J.H. 1974. The Superschool and the Superstate: American Education in the Twentieth Century, 1918-1979. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  5. Harris, J. J. and Bennet, C., eds. 1982. Student Discipline: Legal, Empirical and Educational Perspectives. Bloomington: Indiana University
  6. Lindsay, Drew. 1996. N.Y. Bills Give Teachers Power to Oust Pupils. Education Week, XV(13 March): 1 ff.
  7. Miller, Laura. 1995. Colorado Bill Would Kill Compulsory Age for School. Education Week, XV(15 November): 1 ff.
  8. Montgomery, Lori. 1996. Youngest Offenders Are a Growing Threat. The Detroit Free Press. (10 April): 1 ff.
  9. Ponessa, Jeanne. 1996. Teachers Agree Stress Needed on the Basics. Education Week, XV(21 February): 1 ff.
  10. Portner, Jessica. 1995. Districts Turn to Expulsion to Keep Order. Education Week, XIV(19 April): 1 ff.
  11. Walsh, Mark. 1994. School 'Experts' Found Out of Sync With Public. Education Week, XIV(12 October): 6.













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