Are They Schools Or Are They Prisons?

By Dave Kopel

November 8, 1995

In a few weeks, the new session of the Colorado Legislature will take up what may one the most important education reforms ever: repeal of the compulsory school attendance law, which now requires all children through age 16 to attend school.

If compulsory attendance eventually is repealed, the repeal will not be the result of any denigration of the importance of education. More likely, repeal will be seen as a major step in favor of school safety.

Back in 1876, the Colorado Constitution gave the legislature specific authority to require each child to undergo at least three years of schooling. Since then, some libertarians have argued that the government has no moral right to require children to do something against their wishes, and the wishes of their parents.

But even in a small government state like Colorado, this argument hasn't gotten very far. Most folks feel that, as long as a welfare state exists, the government should be able to compel children to obtain an education, so that they don't grow up to become a burden to the taxpayers.

But now, even people who accept the philosophical premise of compulsory schooling are beginning to recognize that forcing people into school against their will may be profoundly harmful to safety and education, especially in the junior and senior high schools.

We know that teenagers who don't want to be in school usually don't learn very much, even if they can be coerced into showing up at school most of the time. Unfortunately, many of these obstinate non-learners, besides wasting their own time, also destroy the education of dozens of other students.

Many public school teachers can recount horror stories of how just one or two disruptive teenagers can ruin the classroom environment for everyone else. The teacher may be so busy trying to control one or two troublemakers that the amount of teaching time declines dramatically.

Proponents of the government schools as training centers for global economic competition often point to Japan as a nation which produces highly literate, numerate high school graduates. One of the reasons that Japanese high schools are so successful at teaching calculus, science, foreign languages and other subjects whose mastery eludes so many American high school graduates is that attendance at Japanese high schools is completely voluntary. Nobody has to go to high school in Japan unless he or she wants to.

As a result, writes criminologist Jackson Toby: "Dealing as they do exclusively with voluntary students, Japanese high school teachers are more firmly in control of their high schools, without the help of security guards or of metal detectors...Japanese teachers are not afraid to admonish students who start to misbehave because the overwhelming majority of students care about their teachers' favorable attitudes."

Toby explains that "Because the entire high school student body consists of youngsters who wantto attend, Japanese teachers are able to require of these voluntary students greater studiousness than it is possible to require of involuntary students...Japanese high school teachers are hardly ever assaulted by their students."

While in the United States, school violence is greater in high schools than in junior highs, the reverse is true in Japan. In the junior highs, attendance is compulsory, and virtually all the violence is perpetrated by the seven percent of junior high students who choose not to continue into senior high.

Thus, abolishing compulsory attendance beyond the fifth grade would almost certainly have an immediate, dramatic effect in reducing school violence in the United States. Simply lowering the compulsory attendance age from sixteen to fourteen could make a major safety difference in the senior high schools.

When students drop out, the school receives less money from the state or local government. The fact that government schools receive funding on the basis of their body count is a major reason why government school employee and administrator organizations are such energetic promoters of compulsory attendance.

There is, however, nothing unfair about reducing school funding when the number of students declines. If you have fewer customers, you need fewer resources.

Besides, because disruptive students consume a disproportionately large share of counseling, security, administrative and other expensive resources, losing the troublemakers might be a net financial gain to many schools.

One objection to changing compulsory education laws is that letting teenagers out of school merely transfers the problem from the school to the street. But on the street, the drop-out will have no opportunity to ruin the peaceful education of dozens of other children every day. Schools are, after all, education centers, not holding pens for people who don't want to learn.

For at least some drop-outs, the experience away from school might prove a sobering experience, and awaken an interest in the benefits that school attendance can provide. Other drop-outs might spend their days more happily and usefully working at a convenience store or loading dock than passing time in an overcrowded classroom from which they would graduate illiterate.

Of course some teenagers will waste their lives out of school with as much determination as they wasted their lives while in school. But at least they will not prevent other students from learning.

At the least, persons who insist on maintaining the present system should offer evidence that the social good of compulsory schooling more than compensates for the violence (and the destruction of education) which it inflicts on teachers and on students who really do want to learn.

Dave Kopel is Research Director at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden.

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