Every state has a mandatory minimum age at which a child must begin attending elementary school, as well as the length of time she must stay in school. Exemptions exist for special circumstances, but in general, parents or legal guardians who do not comply with the mandatory school attendance law are subject to legal consequences.
History of Compulsory Attendance
In 1852, Massachusetts was the first state to create a law related to mandatory education and specifically that children must attend a public school. At the time, parents were not given the option of sending their children to private schools. By 1918, all 50 states had adopted a mandatory attendance statute, though there did not exist a standard minimum and maximum age requirement. Modern amendments to state laws have allowed parents to send their children to private schools and have included homeschooling as an option that satisfies the compulsory education law.
Legal Consequences for Noncompliance
Parents or legal guardians of a child under the age of 18 who does not attend school on a regular basis are subject to being charged with a misdemeanor. However, in states in which the law reads that children only attend school until the age of 16 or 17, a parent of an 18-year-old would not be subject to punishment. Most states have established a fine system for first- and second-time offenses, but some states can also impose short-term jail sentences for parents of a child who continually fails to attend school. The offending child is also required to return to school and maintain regular attendance.
Many public schools employ attendance officers whose job is to ensure that students attend school on a consistent basis. State governments may withhold certain funds for schools that demonstrate low attendance rates, which makes an attendance officer's job vital to a school's bottom line. Attendance officers meet with teachers to identify which students require corrective action due to poor attendance. They meet with those students and their parents to discuss ways to improve attendance. In states such as Michigan, an attendance officer has the authority of a deputy sheriff in the local school and can file a complaint when a student is consistently absent.
Parents or a legal guardian of a child who is mentally or physically disabled are generally exempt from abiding by the mandatory school attendance law. Most states will also waive enforcement if a child under the age of 18 is employed full-time (at the legal age required for his state) or has obtained a high school equivalent education from an alternative school or homeschool program that abides by state laws and regulations. Courts have also made special exemptions for a child who fears for his safety at school and for children whose religious beliefs are violated by subject areas taught in class.
Though every state has a mandatory school attendance law, differences exist in the age range requirements. Fifteen states have an age range requirement of ages 6 to 16. Another 12 states have an slightly higher age range of 7 to 16. Seven states have the youngest beginning age requirement at 5 years old, two states have an age requirement from 6 years old to 17, and another six states have a range from ages 6 to 18. Two states have the oldest beginning age requirement, from 8 to 17, three states have a range of age 7 to age 17 and three additional states have a requirement from age 7 to 18.
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