Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 1: Legal Aspects of Compulsory Education Legislation

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Many questions of interest suggest themselves in connection with the attempt of the community to provide educational opportunities for all the children and to insure to all the children the enjoyment of those opportunities. First, perhaps, should be considered the question of the agency by which such provision should be made. Should this be done by the federal government or by the forty-eight different state governments ?

The problem of the education of the people in the elementary branches is essentially a national problem which should be looked at from a national point of view. As a result of the ease of migration in America and of the mobility of labor required under our present industrial conditions, the probability of a person's spending his later life in the place in which he spends his childhood is very slight. Nor is there any possible way of forecasting his movements. A minimum standard of education becomes, then, a matter of concern to the entire country, any portion of which may suffer from the burden of inadequate training and consequent industrial and civic inefficiency. This general concern has been registered in the grants by the federal government of public land for educational purposes, and all questions relating to education should, in fact, also be regarded from a national point of view. This is, however, impossible under our constitutional limitations, and our federal government[1] confines its activities in the field of education, except in the matter of land grants, to the collection

(2) and the publication of educational material[2] and to grants in aid of special forms of education, as for example, mechanical, agricultural, or vocational training. Under our American system, therefore, the control over education is left to the jurisdiction of forty-eight different state governments. The result of this has been, of course, lack of uniformity with regard to every question of educational policy, irregular and halting progress, and standards established by the educational authorities which vary from state to state.[3] So universal, however, is the interest in this subject, so widespread the belief in its importance, that the expenditures for the support of the state educational systems amount to very large sums. The Commissioner of Education, for example, reports that in a single year[4] the value of the common-school property in the various states amounted to $1,266,382,277, while the expenditure reached the sum Of $482,886,793, the number of teachers employed 547,289, and the enrolment in public elementary schools 17,077,577. The corresponding figures for Illinois show that the value of school property and school funds amounted to $110,860,023 and the expenditure amounted to $34,217,582. The number of teachers was 30,473 and the public-school enrolment 912,811.[5]

Another question relating to the agency which should provide educational facilities for the people, and one which has

(3) been the subject of bitter controversy in other countries, is that of the relative claims of the church and the state to make such provision. In the United States, the issue has not in general been drawn between the claims of the church on the one hand and of private initiative of a non-ecclesiastical character on the other; or between the church with its spiritual sanction and the state with its organization of compulsion, as it was drawn in England during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, when the church retained the right to control the form of educational organization and the state only gradually and almost surreptitiously assumed the power first to standardize and then directly to organize the school system.[6] It is interesting to recall the fact that, in England, efforts to develop a system of public education were opposed by those jealous of the prerogatives of the church on the one hand and by those who feared that the results of bureaucratic organization would be to replace by monotony, uniformity, and mediocrity the variety, initiative, and freedom which should characterize liberal education. John Stuart Mill, for example, wrote that a "general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another."[7]

Although the issue has never been drawn in this way in the United States and although the organization of a public system of education has from the earliest settlement of the country been regarded as a proper exercise of governmental power, the government has never attempted to monopolize that function

(4) or seriously to interfere with the freedom of private education [8] beyond setting in general terms a minimum of instruction to be offered and in some states requiring that instruction to be in English.

This minimum will be found in the provisions for compulsory attendance and is expressed in several ways. Schools " taught by competent instructors" are accepted by some states for attendance in place of the public schools.[9] Instruction in "branches usually taught in the public primary schools" fulfils the requirement in others.[10] Instruction in "approved private schools" is the phraseology used in the laws of other states.[11] In some states, as for example, Massachusetts, the statutes prescribe the conditions on which approval may be given, namely when all instruction in subjects prescribed by law is in the English language and equals in thoroughness and efficiency, and in the progress made therein the instruction in the public schools in the same place.[12]

It is obvious that from the administrative machinery provided for the enforcement of compulsory attendance laws, devices for standardizing the private, and, in particular, the sectarian parochial schools might be developed. This has,

(5) however, been found to be a difficult task, and one element in that difficulty undoubtedly lies in the fact that education is a matter of state rather than federal jurisdiction, and the opposition based on sectarian considerations may disguise itself in innumerable ways according to the issues presenting themselves in the various communities.

While the development of the American system of public education has not been openly resented by the ecclesiastical organization as in England, it has yet had two definite, open sources of opposition to overcome. The first is the claim of the taxpayer not to be compelled to bear the burden of the system unless actually sharing directly in the benefit of the system by receiving instruction. It will appear, for example, that in Illinois, after an unsuccessful attempt had been made in 1825 to enable the majority in any school district to tax themselves for school purposes, it took thirty years, during which time 'there existed only voluntary provision for those who attended voluntarily, to establish the principle that the "property of all Could be taxed to educate the children of all."

The right of all children to an education [13] has now, however, been recognized in Illinois, so that every child may enter school [14] when he has reached the age of six [15] and, except for purposes of necessary discipline [16] or for the purpose of protecting the school against a present menace in the form of contagious disease, AMY not be excluded from a school session [17] which cannot legally last less than six months.[18]


The second source of opposition was found in the doubt as to the power of the state to interfere with the parental right of the father to determine the amount as well as the kind of education his children should have.[19] One of the most important rights assured the parent under the common law was that of directing the education of his child.[20] The parent was likewise supposed to be under a duty to educate his child, but this was only a moral duty, [21] unenforced by any sanction, and, in the absence of public provision or free religious provision, unenforceable with regard to the poor parent. Moreover, for the poor at earlier periods, education was sometimes related to the child's apprenticeship, and the father, with the right to direct his education, enjoyed likewise the right to place his child at work and to appropriate his earnings. In order to state the situation clearly, the fact may be recalled that the father at common law was entitled to the custody and the control of the child's person with the right to appropriate the child's earnings. The corollary to this right was an alleged duty to maintain, to protect, and to educate. [22] The duty to maintain was so slightly enforced, however, as to give rise to a question as to its very existence;[23] the duty to protect gave rise merely to certain legal defenses, while the duty to educate was declared by Blackstone to be a natural and not a legal duty. So long, therefore, as the community merely provides facilities for public education

(7) it is only aiding the parent in the performance of his natural duty. A further step is taken when, in addition to providing facilities of which the parent is willing to take advantage for the sake of his children, new duties are imposed on parents with reference to the care and education of their children. The right of the legislature to impose such new duties has been exercised, for example in Illinois, in the rapidly increasing body of statutes prohibiting cruelty to children,[24] defining dependency and delinquency [25] giving to the courts power to separate children from their parents when the good of the children demands such separation,[25] punishing parents who contribute to the dependency or delinquency of their children, [26] requiring parents to support their children, [27] prohibiting the employment of young children, [28] and requiring the parents to secure the attendance of their children at school.[29] Questions have been raised as to the power of the legislature to impose upon parents

(8) these new duties, but the courts have been unanimous in holding that one of the highest prerogatives of the state is its right gradually to raise the standard of parental care.[30]

So far the question has been raised before the courts in relation to compulsory attendance only in connection with provisions for fining parents who do not send their children to school. The question of the power to separate parent and child on the ground of truancy has not yet been considered by any court. The right has been upheld in the case of delinquent and dependent children; but the right is not so clear when the child is only truant, not delinquent, and when the parents, while failing to secure their children's attendance, do not maintain homes sufficiently below normal to justify finding the children dependent. On this point Professor Freund in his treatise on the Police Power[31] says that " the commitment of the child is a measure taken against the child for the child's misconduct

(9) (truancy) and that the parent is deprived of custody is an inevitable incident to such a measure, just as a child may be deprived of parental care while a parent is imprisoned. " Since, however, there is a doubt on this point and since there is a growing belief in the importance to the state of protecting the child in opposition, if need be, to the wishes of the parents, the decision of a test-case is likely to be more favorable to the child and to the community at a later date than at the present time. In the apparent conflict of interest between the community and the parent with reference to the child's early years, the right of the community is being slowly but surely strengthened. The education authorities have therefore undoubtedly acted wisely in not hastening a decision as to the power to remove the truant child from his parents. in the one Chicago case in which a parent has resisted the action of the court in committing his child and has resorted to the writ of habeas corpus, the educational authorities acquiesced and did not take the case to the Supreme Court.[32]

From this preliminary discussion it becomes clear that the enforcement of attendance at school involves the setting up of administrative machinery through which three services will be rendered: (I) that of supplying to parents and children information with reference to their duty under the law and due notice of failure to perform that duty; (2) that of invoking the aid of the appropriate court in the case of wilful and persistent refusal on the part of the parent to perform his duty; (3) that of enforcing discipline in the case of children whose parents are unable to secure their regular attendance and good behavior at school.


This administrative agency in Chicago is the Compulsory Education Department of the Board of Education. The duties of the officers in this department are (I) to report all violations of the compulsory school law, (2) to enter complaints in cases of violation of the law by the parents,[33] (3) to arrest children of school-going age who become habitual truants, and to file petitions for commitment to the Parental School.[34]

As has been said, however, the duty of securing the child's attendance rests primarily upon the parent or the "person having control of the child."[35] This duty is "annually to cause any child between seven and sixteen to attend a public or a private school" during the entire session, which must not be less than six months.

The duty is not always perfectly clear since the present Illinois statute recognizes as entitled to exemption under the law: (1) those children receiving instruction elsewhere in the elementary branches by competent persons, (2) those children whose physical and mental condition renders their attendance impractical or inexpedient, (3) those children who are in the words of the statute "excused for temporary absence for cause" by the principal or the teacher, and (4) those children between fourteen and sixteen years of age who are necessarily and lawfully employed during the hours when the school is in session. Many difficult questions arise in connection with the statutory list of exempt cases. Who is to decide when attendance is

(11) "impractical and inexpedient" because of the mental and physical condition of the child ? What constitutes "necessity" of employment in the case of the fourteen- or fifteen-year-old child? A clear and universally accepted definition of these terms is essential to an effective enforcement of the law. And, yet, there are at present substantially no general principles governing the interpretation of these clauses.

For a failure, however, to perform the duty of securing the attendance of the child who is not exempt, the Illinois Statute provides that " the parent is liable to prosecution and shall forfeit not less than $5 nor more than $20 (with or without costs) and may be committed until payment is made." For misstatement as to the age of the child, which the parent is under duty to make known correctly, there may also be prosecution and imposition of a forfeit of from $3 to $20, without commitment. Prosecutions for these offenses in those cities in which there is a Municipal Court are held before the appropriate branch of that court,[36] before which are also brought non-supporting parents and those who contribute to the dependency and delinquency of their children.

The machinery which has been developed in Chicago for enforcing the compulsory education law may briefly be described as follows: The officers of the Compulsory Education Department are assigned to schools, at which they call periodically for reports concerning the attendance of children duly enrolled. If they receive from the principals reports of absence or if by such other agencies as the United Charities their attention is called to the fact that certain children are either not enrolled ,or are irregular in their attendance, notices are sent and visits to the homes are made. In 1913-14, for example, 58,064 such

(12) absences are reported as having been investigated,[37] resulting in 1,236 warning notices being served on indifferent parents liable to prosecution in the Municipal Court, besides 1,139 notices connected with proposed juvenile Court action. Of the "indifferent parents," 67 were prosecuted.

In case the real difficulty lies or appears to lie with the child or prosecution of the parents seems an inadequate treatment of the situation, it becomes the duty of the truant officer, or, indeed, of "any reputable citizen" of Chicago to "petition the County or Circuit Court to inquire into the care of the child [38] of school age who has not been attending school or who has been guilty of habitual truancy or of wilful violations of the rules of the school." If the child is under fourteen years of age (and a boy) he may under the statute be sent to the Parental School [39] to be kept until he reaches that age.[40]

In Cook County [41] the court by which these commitments are made is the juvenile Court, which has jurisdiction likewise

(13) over dependent and delinquent children. in a single year, for example, 826 children are reported by the superintendent of the Department of Compulsory Education as having been brought into the juvenile Court. Of these, 424 were committed to the Parental School,[42] 386 were either released on probation or continued, generally pending good behavior, 14 were transferred to the dependent docket,[43] and 2 dismissed.

In view of the fact that commitment to the Parental School does not yet rest on a clear decision upholding the law, it is interesting to notice that the early suggestions for a truant police were made rather with the idea of assisting those parents who voluntarily enrolled their children to secure regularity of attendance than to compel indifferent parents to enrol their children. In the same way, the Parental School has been and is used as an aid to the parent, who, desiring to have his child attend but unable to secure that attendance, consents to his commitment, or at least does not resist the action of the court.

The interests of the Chicago children are better safeguarded than are those of children in the outlying parts of the county. Prosecutions in the Court of Domestic Relations are possible only for children within the city limits. The jurisdiction of the juvenile Court extends, of course, over the whole of Cook County, but the Parental School is maintained by the city and only city children can be committed there. There are in Cook County outside of Chicago 175 school districts, all of which are under a duty to appoint truant officers with power to prosecute parents in courts of appropriate jurisdiction. But no parental school is available for the children who need care and discipline.

The statement of the terms of the statute and the description of the machinery which has been elaborated for its enforce-

(13) -ment makes it clear that the enjoyment by the children of that minimum of education which the statute has fixed is dependent upon many factors. The efficiency of the Compulsory Education Department is, of course, fundamental; but its effective action depends in part, of course, on the intelligence of the judges before whom they must bring the parents and children for violation of the statute. If, for example, the judge fails to realize the importance of securing to the child the right granted under the statute, the right maybe substantially done away with. Such was the result in an English case in which a parent was accused of allowing his little daughter to remain away from school without a reasonable excuse when he let her work in domestic service instead of sending her to school. The bylaw required that the parent of every child not less than five nor more than thirteen years of age should cause such child to attend school unless there should be a reasonable excuse. Three reasonable excuses were named in the act, namely, (1) efficient instruction elsewhere, (2) sickness or other unavoidable cause, (3) no public elementary school within three miles. In this case a little twelve-year-old girl who could read and write, the oldest of several children, was kept out of school and allowed by her parents to take employment as a domestic in another family for which she was paid three shillings (75 cents) a week and her meals. The parents were sober and hard working and claimed that they could cam no more than they were already earning and they could not support the other children without the little daughter's aid. They claimed that the need constituted a "reasonable excuse" under the by-law. The judge, the learned Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, said:

I think the respondent has shown a reasonable excuse within the act for the non-attendance of his child at school. It appears from the statements in the case that the child has been earning money which must have formed a necessary and considerable part of the maintenance of the family. She has been discharging the

(15) honorable duty of helping her parents and, for my own part, before held that these facts did not afford a reasonable excuse for her non-attendance at school, I should require to see the very plainest words to the contrary in the act. I might add that there is nothing I should read with greater reluctance in any act of parliament than that a child was bound to postpone the direct necessity of her family ,to the advantage of getting a little more education for herself.[44]

Such a decision would of course give notice to the education authorities that it was futile to attempt to protect the interests of such children and would render nugatory the entire provision enacted for their protection.[45]

Principals and teachers have, of course, a heavy responsibility laid upon them in the power given them to excuse temporary absence for cause, and the machinery will be seen to fail sometimes because of inadequate provision for testing the child's mental powers and for removing mental or physical handicaps which make attendance impractical or inexpedient. Adequacy of provision for the treatment of children whose homes are unfit and whose parents are incompetent and the responsiveness of parents to the community efforts in behalf of their children these and many other factors enter into the question and determine the mariner of its solution.


In the following chapters an attempt will be made to review the history of the Illinois legislation by which the rights of children and the duties of parents have been formulated. Facts will be presented with reference to the present extent and the apparent causes of truancy and non-attendance in Chicago. It is believed that such an examination is necessary in order to determine the adequacy of the present law and its administration; and it is hoped that such an inquiry may serve as a basis for suggestions of necessary modifications in the machinery for dealing with the truant child or the recalcitrant parent.


  1. Except, of course, in those jurisdictions over which the federal government exercises direct governmental control, as in the District of Columbia.
  2. See the annual reports of the Commissioner of Education. This is, of course, an incomplete statement, if agricultural and mechanical education under special acts of Congress be recalled. See, for example, the so-called Smith-Lever bill (Annual Report of the U.S. Commissioner of Education, 1914, 1, 296). It is, however, substantially true with reference to the provision of general educational opportunity.
  3. Note the varying expressions with regard to private schools cited below, p. 4.
  4. See Annual Report of the U.S. Commissioner of Education, 1913, II, 17 ff.
  5. Ibid., p. 20. There was an estimated enrolment of 193,734 in private schools that year.
  6. A review of the development of the free compulsory school systems in other countries is beyond the scope of this study. For a general survey of these systems, see DeMontmorency, State Intervention in English Education; Balfour, Educational Systems of Great Britain and Ireland; Craik, The State in Relation to Education; Munro, Cyclopadia of Education; Parker, History of Modern Elementary Education; Halsbury, The Laws of England, Vol. XII.
  7. Essay on Liberty. Mill discusses the possibilities of the state's requiring but not providing education.
  8. Freund, Police Power, sec. 266.
  9. For example, by Colorado, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
  10. California, Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota.
  11. Maine and Massachusetts.
  12. The power of "approval" is given to the school committee, i.e., the local educational authority. In New York, the six "common school branches- arc enumerated, viz., reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic English grammar, and geography, and the teaching must be substantially equivalent to that given to children of like age in the public school, with at least as many hours a day and no considerable difference in the number of holidays. The records of attendance must be regularly kept and open to the inspection of school authorities. Rhode Island has a similar provision.
  13. Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 122, sec. 114, par. 9.
  14. Regardless of color. See People v. Board of Education of Quincy, 101 Illinois 308.
  15. Board of Education v. Bolton, 85 Illinois Appellate 92.
  16. School Directors v. Breen, 60 Illinois Appellate 201; 167 Illinois 67; Thompson V. Beaver, 63 Illinois 353; Rulison v. Post, 79 Illinois 567.
  17. People v. Chicago Board of Education, 234 Illinois 422.
  18. Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 122, sec. 274.
  19. On this point see Mill's interesting statement in the Essay on Liberty.
  20. Freund, op. cit., sec. 264; Blackstone's Commentaries, Book I, chap. xvi, "Parent and Child"; Halsbury, The Laws of England, Vol. 17, article on "Infants and Children."
  21. Hodges v. Hodges (1796), Peake's Add. Cas. 79; cited Halsbury, op. cit, Vol. 123 p. 4
  22. Blackstone's Commentaries, Book I, chap. xvi. The mother shares these rights under the so-called co-guardianship laws. See, for example, Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 64, sec. 4.
  23. Breckinridge and Abbott, The Delinquent Child and the Home, Appendix, p. 183; Garnett, Children and the Law, p. 30.
  24. Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 38, see. 53.
  25. Ibid., chap. 23, sec. 169 fol.
  26. Ibid., chap. 38, see. 42 hb.
  27. Ibid., chap. 64, sec. 24.
  28. Ibid., chap. 48, see. 20.
  29. Concerning the very modern character of these duties, the following statement by Mr. Sidney Webb in an early issue of the Crusade may be noted: "We must take note in passing, that any such notion as enforcing parental responsibility is an entirely new thing. Speaking not pedantically as a lawyer, but broadly as a historian, it is an innovation of the past half-century -- almost, we may say, of the present generation. Our ancestors never thought of enforcing parental responsibility. A hundred years ago, if a father left his children half-starved, scantily clothed in rags, with the most miserable lodgings, overcrowded and indecently occupied, with every kind of insanitation, so long as the parish was put to no expense, no one took Proceedings against him. Cruelty to animals was made an offense long before cruelty to children. There was no attempt to constrain a parent to keep the child in health, to provide medical attendance for it, to supply education or moral training -- least of all any idea of enforcing upon the parent any fulfilment of the obligation to furnish the all-important environment of a decent home. With the not very real exception that doing a child to death too suddenly might (we may almost say theoretically) he treated as murder, there was, a hundred years ago, so far as regards Children in their parents' own homes, nothing in the way of enforcement of parental responsibility."
  30. School Board for London v. Jackson, L.R., 7 Q.B.D. 502 (1881); State v. Bailey, 57 Ind. 324 (1902): "The natural rights of a parent to the custody and control of his infant child are subordinate to the power of the state, and may be restricted and regulated by municipal laws. One of the most important natural duties of the parent is to educate his child and this duty he owes not to the child only but to the community. If he neglects to perform it or wilfully refuses to do so, he may be coerced by laws to execute such civil obligation. The welfare of the child and the best interests of society require that the state shall exercise its sovereign authority to secure to the child the opportunity to acquire an education. Statutes making it compulsory upon the parent, guardian or the person having the custody and control of children to send them to public or private schools for longer or shorter periods during certain years of the life of such children, have not only been upheld as strictly within the power of the legislature, but have generally been regarded as necessary to carry out the express purposes of the constitution itself" (p. 329). See also State v. Clotter, 33 Ind- 400 at P. 411; Burdick v. Babcock, 36 Iowa 562 at P. 566; also Washington v. Counort, 69 Washington 361; 41L.R.A.n.s.,p.95; Hochheimer, Custody of Infants, sec. 79. See also The Delinquent Child and the Home, Appendix, p. z81.
  31. Sec. 265.
  32. A question which has not been raised, but which Professor Freund suggests, is the power to compel the parent to support the child during commitment to the Parental School. it is submitted that the duty of maintenance formerly unenforceable has now been sanctioned in various ways, and that there is no reason why the duty should cease because of default an the part of the parent or of the child.
  33. Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 122, sees. 274, 144. It is an interesting fact that the statute provides for a superintendent of compulsory education, while no statutory provision is made for a superintendent of schools. The former is therefore more independent in his relation to the board, which neither creates his office nor defines his duties, than the latter whose position is wholly a result of board action.
  34. Ibid., secs. 145, 146.
  35. Ibid., sec. 275.
  36. Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 37, Sec. 265, par. 3, 5. In Chicago since April 3, 1911, these prosecutions are brought before the Court of Domestic Relations.
  37. Sixtieth Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago (1913-14), P. 406. No explanation of the exact basis on which reports are made to the department is given in the report of the superintendent, but in general it may be said that when a child has been absent three consecutive days without excuse, his absence is reported to the compulsory attendance officer in his routine visits to the school. The 58,064 cases reported represent then the great mass of absences of children who had already been absent three days or more, besides the cases of children discovered on the street and returned to school or those reported for action by various charitable agencies dealing with families in distress. No information concerning them is given in the report of the superintendent.
  38. Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 122, sec. 144.
  39. The establishment of parental schools is authorized with vote of the people in cities of from 25,000 to 100,000 population. In cities of over that number no such vote need be taken.
  40. Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 122, sec. 145. The Board of Education has authority, but has never exercised it, to make similar provision for girls.
  41. The county in which Chicago is located.
  42. Sixtieth Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago (1913-14), p. 406.
  43. Under the juvenile Court act: Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 23, secs. 169 fol.
  44. London School Board v. Duggan, 13 Q.B.D. 176.
  45. The following statement made by the New York State Education Department with reference to the enforcement of the compulsory school law in that state has significance in this connection. The italics are ours: "'From all this, it should not be inferred that substantial advance is not being made from year to year in a better compliance with the requirements Of this statute throughout the state. School authorities, teachers, attendance officers, and others are securing compliance with the law pretty well and often in spite of the weakness of the courts, With the steady increase in public sentiment in favor of a proper enforcement of the law, the time is not far distant when delinquent judges will find that it will be not only unpopular but dangerous to fail to protect children in their legal rights under this statute."- Eighth Annual Report of the Education Department of the State of New York (1912), p. 333.

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