Ditch compulsory education in Utah? Yes!


Senator Aaron Osmond

I received today, through a colleague, a letter from State Senator Aaron Osmond. The letter, which was sent to Sen. Osmond’s constituents, calls for an end to compulsory education in Utah.

I concur.

In 2002, Sutherland Institute produced a publication (re-released August 16, 2011), Saving Education & Ourselves: The Moral Case for Self-Reliance in Education, wherein we called for the practical elimination of state compulsory attendance laws. Here is a part of what we wrote,

[I]n a free society where parents have the right to raise their children essentially as they see fit, it is unwarranted to force all parents to send their children, or answer, to government schools. Particularly in Utah, parents value education highly and should have the right to choose education for their children freely.

This reform will help to reinvigorate parents with the realization that they are moral agents and are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. It will also help to reinvigorate neighbors, private charitable organizations, and communities to look out for one another on a more personal and proactive level.

We must distinguish between self-reliant families and families in need of community learning assistance. We must also distinguish, as does our state constitution, between government schooling and all other forms of schooling. Compulsory attendance statutes should be amended to isolate and apply only, if at all, to families with children in government schools. Even then, such statutes should allow free movement of families in and out of government schools.

All families with school age children should have their eyes fixed on self-reliance in education. Some families will not achieve this ideal immediately; some families, understandably, will never achieve it. The government school door must be free to swing both ways in accommodating the individual needs of families.

Admittedly, this policy is a radical idea today – especially if you view public schools as your sole source for new employees or if you have ulterior political motives. In truth, compulsory attendance laws are a relic of 20th century industrialism and nativism (yes, nativism).

Far from the Jeffersonian model of public education, compulsory attendance laws have been used by greedy businessmen to provide a steady workforce for their factories and by progressive do-gooders (and fear-mongering nativists) to manage Native Americans and minority immigrant populations.

Today’s public education ideologues interpret the state constitution’s mandate to create and maintain a public school system as carte blanche authority to dictate the education of all children in Utah. Our state constitution implies no such thing.

Thomas Jefferson envisioned and championed public education that spawned intelligent, reasonable and responsible citizens. He never supported compulsory attendance in government schools – he would be appalled at the idea.

A free society’s first teachers are parents and their ecclesiastical leaders – our primary civilizing institutions are the family and the church. There is a reason that traditional education policy in America begins with local control of public schools: Public education is simply an extension of parental control and values. (This is why many of us flinch at Common Core and other federally induced programs.)

We would do well to remind ourselves that public education (even in Utah) is a government program. (Indeed, how can we forget when all income taxes go to public schooling?) Like any other safety net function provided by government, public education exists, in purity, to help parents educate their children. It is precisely for this reason that compulsory attendance laws are appalling. These laws imply that parents and their children exist to serve the state, not the other way around.

On a practical level, eliminating compulsory attendance laws serves the cause of freedom. It would enhance a just society. It would free Utahns from the clutches of special interests such as the business community that only seeks its own welfare and from progressive do-gooders who constantly look to “save” minority populations from their assumed victimhood.

Let me be crystal clear.

In serving legally competent people, a government safety net cannot be compulsory in a free society even when the safety net is necessary. Like any essential government welfare program, public education can serve the common good. But it cannot do so if its presumptive mission is to manage the affairs of all people all of the time.

Here is an undeniable fact: Utah’s compulsory attendance law is a management tool of the state (and special interests looking to profit or benefit through the state). The existence of compulsory attendance laws is no small irony in an age of growing progressivism – every voice for independent thinking, rights of privacy and authentic diversity should hold compulsory attendance laws in contempt. Certainly every freedom-loving Utahn – every person holding an ounce of human dignity and respect for their neighbor – should oppose the idea.

Utahns value education. Unlike the weakening and constant devaluing of private cultures of family and faith, we universally accept and live within a strong private culture of education, and there’s no reason to believe that we would value education less without compulsory means.


Below is the text of the letter (also available at the Utah Senate Site or as a PDF here). 

A Practical Argument for Ending Compulsory Education in Utah
Renewing Accountability for Parents and Respect for Educators
By Senator Aaron Osmond

Before 1890, public education in America was viewed as an opportunity—not a legal obligation. Prior to that time, the parent was primarily responsible for the education of their children. The state provided access to a free education for those that wanted to pursue it. The local teacher was viewed with respect and admiration as a professional to assist a parent in the education of their child.

Then came compulsory education. Our State began requiring that all parents must send their children to public school for fear that some children would not be educated because of an irresponsible parent. Since that day, the proverbial pendulum has swung in the wrong direction.

Some parents completely disengage themselves from their obligation to oversee and ensure the successful education of their children. Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate, and even care for their child, is primarily the responsibility of the public school system. As a result, our teachers and schools have been forced to become surrogate parents, expected to do everything from behavioral counseling, to providing adequate nutrition, to teaching sex education, as well as ensuring full college and career readiness.

Unfortunately, in this system, teachers rarely receive meaningful support or engagement from parents and occasionally face retaliation when they attempt to hold a child accountable for bad behavior or poor academic performance.

On the other hand, actively engaged parents sometimes feel that the public school system, and even some teachers, are insensitive to the unique needs and challenges of their children and are unwilling or unable to give their child the academic attention they need because of an overburdened education system, obligated by law to be all things to all people.

I believe the time has come for us to re-evaluate what we expect of parents and the public education system, as follows:

First, we need to restore the expectation that parents are primarily responsible for the educational success of their own children. That begins with restoring the parental right to decide if and when a child will go to public school. In a country founded on the principles of personal freedom and unalienable rights, no parent should be forced by the government to send their child to school under threat of fines and jail time.

Second, we need to shift the public mindset to recognize that education is a not an obligation, but an opportunity to be valued and respected. Utah’s constitution requires that we provide the opportunity for a free public education to every child. But public education is not free—it costs taxpayers billions each year. When a parent decides to enroll a child in public school, both the parent and child should agree to meet minimum standards of behavior and academic commitment or face real-life consequences from repeating a class, grade or even expulsion.

Third, we need to stop dictating the number of hours a child must be present in a classroom. Instead of requiring that teachers and students must be in class for 990 hours a year, let’s enable our local school boards to determine the best use of a teacher’s time and focus student and parent expectations on educational outcomes such as completing assignments and passage of exams as the measurement of success for the opportunity to progress in public school.

Finally, if a parent decides to keep their child home or to go on a family vacation, it’s the responsibility of that parent to ensure their child completes the assignments and stays current with their class. Similarly, if a child consistently misbehaves, it’s the teacher’s right to send that child home to their parent until he or she is ready to respect and appreciate their opportunity to be educated.

I believe it is time to change how we approach public education in Utah. In my view, the beginning of that change is to repeal compulsory education.

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