Front Page Titles (by Subject) Compulsory Schooling - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1
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Compulsory Schooling - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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“From Universalism to Usurpation: An Essay on the Antecedents to Compulsory School Attendance Legislation.” Review of Educational Research (USA), 47 (1977): 499–530.
A number of conditions made possible the passage of compulsory school attendance legislation. We can explore those structural conditions. We do not investigate the actual political maneuvering involved in passing the specific legislation. We rather pull together analyses of these underlying conditions to show the economic, social, and educational bases for the legislation.
The movement toward compulsory school attendance involved three stages. Schooling had become universal by the first half of the nineteenth century. The prevailing attitude in the colonies and the postrevolutionary era supported self-development. Increasingly that tended to mean schooling. Literacy rates for adult males generally ranged from 70%-100%. Enrollment of students between the ages of 5 to 16 exceeded 90% in many areas. In other areas the percentage enrolled at any given time dipped below 90%. However, this reflected students rotating in and out, rather than complete education for some and none for others. (Many educators today look at open-entry and open-exit as a desirable but utopian goal.) A diverse group of individual teachers and schools provided the schooling.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, states were becoming increasingly involved in the support of education. Many teachers welcomed this state involvement since it freed them from the needs to attract students and collect fees. Over a period of time the public schools' competitive edge due to tax support allowed them to prevail over most of their private rivals. We can attribute the triumph of the public schools to the working of a number of interest groups. Many upper and middle income people feared the immigrant, Catholic, and increasingly urban groups of low income people. They wanted to impose middle class American values. Educational bureaucrats wanted to build their organizations. Teachers were freed from the demands of the market. As a result of compulsory school legislation, parents and students no longer could choose where to go to school, only whether and how long.
Traditional historians have seen compulsory school legislation as supporting and supplementing child labor laws. This is clearly false. Schools were overcrowded; laws frequently had no enforcement mechanisms; and when they did, officers rarely used those mechanisms. Rather the laws reflected America's mood, which had shifted to one of compelling goodness. Also the elites used the legislation as a symbolic tool to control the problems of social change. A new majoritarian mood stood for molding low income students into a form preferred by the elites. They feared an impending loss of their status and identities. Of course this could not have occurred unless the public school system had been in place. Additionally, the elites had come to view private schools as narrow and discriminating.
It is clear that a market mechanism in education was working and was developing along lines that we consider desirable and even utopian today. But that was not understood. An enormous increase in the need for schooling was taking place. Elite groups used this along with an ideological base to provide schooling for their children at public expense while shaping low income and immigrant children into a preferred mold.