Require kids to stay in school? Not so fast…

Anytime you hear government officials mandating new behaviors to a broad swath of the population, that mandate is likely to run afoul of the First Amendment. And so it is with President Obama’s announcement last night that all states must “require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

Although Mr. Obama made other pronouncements about education — see Dana Goldstein’s good summary analysis in The Nation — the stay-in-school mandate was the one that caught my ear, since enforcing it would run afoul of both the United States Supreme Court and our historic commitment to religious liberty.

The case that established the precedent originated in Wisconsin, where a group of Amish families were convicted of violating the state’s school attendance law by withdrawing their children after they graduated from the eighth grade (the law required kids to stay in school until they turned 16). In the place of further formal schooling, the Amish children were expected to begin vocational apprenticeships in their communities that would better prepare them for the particulars of Amish life (and shield them from the vagaries of high school, which their parents felt would endanger their eventual salvation in the eyes of God).

The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the rights of the Amish families, a ruling the U.S. Supreme Court then affirmed. As Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “There is no doubt as to the power of a State, having a high responsibility for education of its citizens, to impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education. . . [But] however strong the State’s interest in universal compulsory education, it is by no means absolute to the exclusion or subordination of all other interests.”

I would imagine that Obama’s logic for the new mandate mirrors the logic that drove Wisconsin’s state officials, who advanced two arguments in support of their compulsory-education law. Referencing the writings of Thomas Jefferson, they pointed out how essential some degree of education is toward preparing citizens to “participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system if we are to preserve freedom and independence.” And they noted that education “prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society.”

The Court accepted the merit of both assumptions — and saw a limit to the logic. “When Thomas Jefferson emphasized the need for education as a bulwark of a free people against tyranny,” Burger wrote, “there is nothing to indicate he had in mind compulsory education through any fixed age beyond a basic education. . . . The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

Consequently, the likelihood that this idea goes beyond last night’s speech is almost nil.  But the bigger issue is our willingness to accept such a simplistic notion about how to solve our school’s dropout crisis. Although there are myriad reasons why young people drop out of school, many do so because they feel uninspired and unengaged. If we begin with that basic fact, the real crime is less that so many children are dropping out, and more that so many of our schools are failing to ignite their students’ passion for learning or adequately prepare them for the world they will enter as adults.

The president’s proposal is therefore merely the latest example of our tendency to craft policies that address the symptom, and ignore the root. And that’s not change I can believe in.

Categories: Democracy, Equity, First Amendment

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  1. You are Reaching
    Posted January 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    yeah sure Obama is directly threatening Religious Freedom LOL What a Dishonest Article…

  2. Posted January 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Given that all states currently have compulsory education laws, and many already extend those laws all the way up to 18, it’s not really credible that Obama’s proposal is unconstitutional. What you’re really talking about is carving out some fairly minor exceptions in the mandates, which is exactly what existing laws already do.

  3. Gina W
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    We should be doing more to address why students are dropping out. The problem is that some (school administrators) are more concerned with imposing bans on what students can wear to school, rather than making sure they stay in school. Recently, a suburban middle school in PA banned students from wearing Ugg boots in school because they claimed students were “carrying items” in them. Although they did not specify, speculation is cell phones were the culprit. The new rule states that students can wear Ugg boots to and from school, but they must change their footwear before they enter homeroom. Acceptable footwear deemed appropriate was lace-up tight at the ankle boots, shoes and high-top sneakers….in other words – anything but Uggs. Perhaps next, they will ban pockets, since they are for carrying things – or are they?

  4. EndlessFire
    Posted July 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Since when is high school not basic education? And why should religious people be exempt from secular laws about the welfare of children? The Amish make their children drop out of school in 8th grade. If any of these kids decides later on that they want to leave the community they are up a creek because you have to have a HS diploma or GED for just about any job now. How is making sure children get at least a basic high school education bad for anyone?

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