Parents should never have the authority to purposely raise an illiterate child

I agree with Utah state Sen. Aaron Osmond’s assertion that over the last 150 years government has used compulsory school attendance laws to inappropriately usurp much of the parents’ responsibility and authority for educating their children. But while I believe this educational responsibility should be restored to parents, I also believe compulsory school attendance laws should be maintained, with some modifications.


When mandatory school attendance laws were first passed in the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, brick-and-mortar schools and formal instruction were synonymous. That’s not necessarily the case today. In this new era of digital technology and customized teaching and learning, students are increasingly being educated in venues as diverse as libraries, community centers, private homes, museums, and Starbucks.

This proliferation of eclectic learning environments suggests our education laws should focus on compulsory learning and not compulsory school attendance. As long as children are making adequate progress mastering their state’s academic standards, the public should not care where this learning is occurring.

I oppose Sen. Osmond’s proposal to eliminate mandatory attendance (or learning) laws because the parents’ authority to education their children should not be absolute. Parents should never have the authority to purposely raise an illiterate child. That’s child abuse.

The Washington Post made a similar point in its recent editorial criticizing Virginia’s religious exemption law, which allows parents to opt out of the school attendance law without providing any evident their children are becoming literate:

“States have an interest and an obligation to see that children get a basic education; that’s why we have compulsory attendance laws. By writing such a broad exemption, Virginia has tipped the scales that balance a parent’s religious freedom with a child’s right to an education.”

In many ways, we’ve already begun making the transition from compulsory attendance to compulsory learning. In most states, homeschooling satisfies  compulsory school attendance laws if parents can prove their children are making adequate academic progress. Unfortunately, what constitutes adequate academic progress is often vague and a source of disagreement between parents and local officials tasked with enforcing school attendance laws. If we’re going to properly balance the parents’ authority to educate their child with the government’s interest in protecting children from abuse, then we must improve our ability to determine what constitutes acceptable academic progress for each child.

The new Common Core State Standards should help with this task since most students nationally will be working toward mastering the same content standards and their collective progress should help inform the progress we should expect from individual children.

Public policy should be more deferential to parental authority, but this authority cannot be absolute. We can create and implement policies that honor parents’ authority to educate their children while still protecting the child and society from abuse.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.