All fifty states mandate school attendance, often punishing teens and their parents for truancy. Compulsory education laws are different in every state, generally requiring mandatory attendance until the age of 16 to 18. As a result, many high school students are in school whether they like it or not.
Do compulsory education laws help or hurt the high school environment? Supporters of compulsory education laws claim that compulsory education laws decrease crime and teen pregnancy and increase prospective earnings. Critics say the tie between compulsory education and dropout rates is tenuous at best. And when compulsory education triggers truancy violations, a minor status offense can become a major legal problem for the teenage student. Homeschool advocates cite to countries like Japan, where high school is not mandatory and is seen as a privilege. When the only students who attend school are the ones that want to be there, it decreases incidents of violence and increases the quality of education in the classroom. As Steve Chapman noted in his article for the Chicago Tribue, “The presence of disruptive, unmotivated kids in a class is a drain on teachers, a distraction to other students and a daily obstacle to learning.”
The Supreme Court has found that states have a compelling interest in educating children that generally outweighs a parent’s right to dictate whether a child goes to school. However, the Court also found at least one exception. In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court found that Amish teenagers should not have to go to high school after the age of 16, as the law in Pennsylvania required. The Supreme Court recognized the validity of the practical skills training that Amish teens were missing by being at school. The Court found that Amish teens needed the flexibility to develop the skills they needed to live in their communities.
Wisconsin v. Yoder focused on the cultural and religious differences of the Amish, but the reasoning the Court used to validate alternatives to formal education is more broadly relevant. While primary education teaches basic skills, by high school the core courses are not always necessary to be a productive citizen. If a high school education is going to remain compulsory, the system should have more practical options that appeal to the teens that are currently dropping out. These options should include things like vocational-technical schools, online alternatives, and magnet schools for the arts.
Every teenager should have the right to an education, but is mandating traditional high school the right way to go? Teenagers respond to alternatives. Our education system should provide alternatives and allow teens and their parents to take an active role in deciding what their compelled high school education looks like.