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Mandatory School Attendance, Slavery, and Nullification

I am very pleased to have Mike Brusa as a guest writer for this post. I have had the pleasure of making his acquaintance in the Tom Woods Supporters private Facebook group. Mike always has insightful, to-the-point things to say about government in education, based on his extensive experience working in the California educational system.  – Laura

One of the high school students was incredulous when I suggested a similarity between slavery and the current school system. She snapped back, “Are you saying we are slaves?!” I was substituting in a 12th grade social studies class. The assignment was about developing proposals for a mock Constitutional Convention. Her group had chosen the southern region of the United States and was struggling with the idea of defending Constitutional proposals for slavery.


I am a retired school superintendent and have had positions in a number of districts all over the state of California. I worked as a superintendent for 18 years in 4 different districts. I was in each district for just under 5 years, which is twice the average tenure.

It is almost universal in this country that school attendance is mandatory. Students are required to go to school and parents are held responsible for making sure they attend. In California, school districts are required to monitor student attendance, however there is little incentive to do so. I did not pursue students in my districts under any aspect of the attendance law. I would not have done so even if there had been incentives.

Not bothering parents who were not sending their children to school was my nullification of what I felt was an unjust and impractical state law. Nullification has different forms. States have the right to nullify laws and regulations imposed by the federal government if these are clearly outside of the constitutional powers granted to the federal government. States are in some sense nullifying drug laws when it comes to marijuana.

Some cities are nullifying laws in regard to immigration by declaring themselves as “sanctuary cities.” Individual citizens have the right of jury nullification when they deem a law to be unjust and not reasonable for the courts to enforce. Clearly, for me to be pursuing parents and students was unjust, impractical, and worthy of my personal nullification. The school board in each district agreed.

Mandatory attendance laws are unjust and impractical because they put schools in the middle of legal policies that are divisive. Such laws also perpetuate the monopoly of government education that allows schools to resist real improvement. The laws limit choices for parents and their children. To achieve compliance would require the schools to use coercive methods. It was almost impossible to make parents comply without using destructive legal sanctions. It sometimes resulted in arbitrary enforcement. Most importantly, these laws subject students to an obligatory status akin to slavery.

In California, there are various attendance options under the Education Code. Parents can request another school district. Such a transfer is dependent on there being room in the other district. Often, parents simply lie about where they live in order to circumvent the process due to fear of having their request rejected. Parents can potentially appeal any rejection to the local school board or the county school board. County boards typically approve all transfers. In the districts in which I worked, I approached approval or rejection in various ways, depending on the circumstances.

Many parents choose homeschooling. In California, there is also a process for homeschooling that is controlled by law. Parents must submit an affidavit to the school district of residence. There are specific criteria that must be fulfilled. Schools are required to monitor the requirements. I followed the law in regard to filing existing affidavits, but did not monitor any other criteria. One of the requirements is to identify the credentialed person who is the teacher of record for the homeschooled student. This requirement, in most cases, makes it impossible for parents to legally homeschool.

Some parents send their children to a private school. Private schools are not always available. Also, private schools can be expensive. These two conditions limit the number of students that can take advantage of this option. Due to federal requirements under Title 1 and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), districts are required to inform private schools of federal funding and the private school’s access to support for their eligible students. I worked from an approved list of private schools within each district. Invariably, private schools rejected any participation in these programs because they did not want to deal with the program requirements and bureaucracy. I guess that was a form of nullification for them. Their signed refusal was required. Beyond that, the districts where I worked left private schools and their parents alone.

A charter school movement has been created in many states. Charter schools do not have to comply with all the rules and regulations established for comprehensive schools. However, there are requirements that must be followed for the various levels of approval needed for charter school operation. In California, the number of such schools is rising and the students that attend are outside of the typical district structure. Students still have to comply with mandatory attendance. Sometimes districts challenge charter schools. This can lead to appeals, and, in some cases, legal action by proponents of charter schools. Most challenges are unsuccessful. However, the number of students in charters is tiny compared to regular school attendance.

These examples all describe the efforts of the State to make school mandatory. All of these options are impacted by State law and regulations. For the most part, I was able to nullify these efforts. The State never came back to any of the districts where I worked to either ask or require more diligent effort about mandatory student attendance. I am not aware of any efforts to enforce attendance in other districts either. I am sure that is because it would be impossible for them to do so.

However, the legal requirements do limit the opportunities for parents and students. Parents mostly conform because it is convenient, even if of questionable educational value. The potential sanctions are enough for parents not to seek alternatives. There is no additional cost for the parents when their children attend conventional schools.

Mandatory attendance laws regulate children to servile circumstances, basically making them slaves. If that seems too harsh, then perhaps a classroom could be compared to a sweatshop, except without the pay. As I continue to substitute in classrooms, mostly at the high school level, the student apathy speaks volumes.

I was able to nullify the laws that applied to my districts, but that was limited to the districts where I was superintendent. I doubt the State recognizes or really cares about the nullification that may be occurring throughout the system. Students not attending reduces costs to the State educational system. As long as there is enough attendance to justify the huge educational structure, the State is content. Adequate attendance is ensured by simple existence of mandatory attendance laws.

Mandatory attendance needs to be repealed. This action would be the beginning step to allow change for everyone. It would reduce the monopoly position held by state schools. That would make schools have to truly evaluate and address the relationship with the parents and students. It would give the parents and students more power as consumers in choosing educational options. No one can say for sure what the educational options would look like after such a repeal, but it would be interesting to see what would transpire over time. My hope would be that it would lead to a system with much less student apathy and less servitude in the classroom.

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