Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 3: The Struggle for A Compulsory Attendance Law in Illinois, 1855-83

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Between the year 1855, when the free school act was passed, and the year 1883, when school attendance was made compulsory, there were comparatively few changes in the school law. The law of 1855 became effective only very gradually. The establishment of an adequate school system was inevitably a slow process even after state taxes for this purpose were forthcoming. Governor Matteson in his message to the General Assembly on the first of January, 1857, reported with satisfaction that there were "few individuals who deny the principle that the property of the country should educate its children." He called attention to the fact that the number of children enrolled in the schools of Illinois had increased from 136,371 in 1853 to 312,393 in 1856, and he described this change in the school enrolment as "one of the most interesting and immediate effects of the new law" and declared further that the results proved "conclusively that a new era is begun in the education of the state."

The effect of the new free school law may be illustrated by the changes that took place in the school situation in Peoria, a town in central Illinois, which had in 1860 a population of 14,045. In 1855 there were four ungraded "public schools" in the town; the teachers were paid according to the number of pupils enrolled, and consequently each teacher admitted to his school all who wished to enter, without regard to age or previous schooling. Moreover, the tuition at these so-called "public schools" was so high as to exclude "many of the poorer children and the children of those who did not sufficiently

(41) appreciate the advantages of learning and school discipline to their offspring." It was said that three-fourths of all the children attending school in Peoria were in private schools, and the public schools were looked upon "as fit only for the poor, and to be shunned by all who were able to pay the high tuition of the private institution." Three years after the free school law of 1855 had been passed, the superintendent of city schools reported that over $10,000 a year had been expended for buildings and sites but that it had not yet been found possible to make the schools " wholly free, dependent only on money raised by taxation for their support." It was claimed that the tuition fee of one dollar a term was collected only from those "able to pay." "The poor," it was reported, "have been allowed to send free, where it was supposed that otherwise their poverty would exclude their children from the schools."[1]

On the whole, the response that came from the people after the passage of the free school law showed that they heartily approved it. Within six years after the passage of the law, the number of schools with the required six months' term had increased from 7,283 to 8,406; the number of districts having no schools at all had diminished from 850 to 649, leaving 288 districts with schools open for a shorter term than the law prescribed. Ninety-four per cent of all the school districts of the state had, according to the report of the state superintendent of public instruction, fully complied with the provisions of the law even with regard to the duration of the school term.[2]

The effect of the new law in Chicago is of special interest. In 1855 improvements in the school system of this city were being made under John C. Dore, a new superintendent of schools. But a school system utterly lacking in organization

(42) could be improved only gradually. The chaos that existed prior to this time may be illustrated by the fact that under Mr. Dore's superintendency teachers were for the first time provided with class books and required to register the names of their pupils and to keep attendance records. During the earlier period without any registers either of admissions or of discharges, it had been impossible to tell what pupils were even supposed to be attending school. The new law brought about a great and sudden increase in school attendance. In 1856 the superintendent reported that in spite of increased accommodations[3] the public schools were crowded with pupils, and he estimated that there were still "at least 3,000 children in the city who were utterly destitute of school instruction, or any equivalent for it." During the years 1856 and 1857, a new schoolhouses were constructed to provide for about 2,500 additional school children, but the superintendent reported that there were still "hundreds of children who could not be accommodated with seats."

There was another serious aspect to the situation that was just beginning to receive attention. Not only were there still large numbers of unenrolled children, but the children who were enrolled attended school very irregularly. The state superintendent of public instruction reported that the average attendance in Chicago schools was Only 31 per cent of the enrolment. With regard to the new problem of non-attendance, contemporary school reports show that the large number of unenrolled and non-attending children was attributed to the "changing char-

(43) -acter of the population."[4] There was much concern over the situation, but the only method of meeting the problem of irregularity of attendance was suspension from school -- a remedy that was obviously worse than the evil it was designed to cure. Although the attention of those responsible for the management of school affairs was being gradually concentrated on the importance of getting all the children enrolled in the new schools and of insuring, through regularity of attendance, proper returns from the public investment in free education, there was no attempt made as yet to secure a compulsory attendance law. Such changes as were made in the school law during this period related rather to the management of the school fund, the election of school commissioners, the duties of state and county superintendents of schools, the selection of teachers together with their qualifications, and the issuance of certificates.

But there is evidence that the absence of legislation did not mean that conditions were considered satisfactory by those who were directly connected with the schools. As early as 1862 the state superintendent of public instruction noted in

(44) his biennial report that "the evils of absenteeism and irregular attendance are among the most serious and difficult of remedy of any encountered in the administration of any system of common schools. While the former injuriously lessens the number of scholars, the latter as perniciously affects the schools themselves."[5] In the annual report of the Chicago Board of Education for the year 1864-65, the organization of a "truant police" system is suggested. Although the schools of this city were at that time greatly superior to any other schools in the state, it was said that a large number of children were enrolled each month and that 10 per cent of those enrolled one month were absent the next. Moreover, even those enrolled for a month attended irregularly during that month, and trivial excuses for absence were noted. It was also pointed out that child labor was a serious factor in depriving children of the opportunity of attending school, and in 1865 the Eleventh Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago sounded a solemn warning on this subject. "Many a child," it said, "has been sacrificed mentally and morally as well as physically to the pecuniary interest of the parent. Every effort should be made to secure the city against the inroads which avarice and carelessness are thus making upon her prosperity."[6]

A few years later, the state superintendent of public instruction reported that it was undeniable that "after the most favorable interpretation of the statistics that truth will warrant, the evil of absenteeism, irregular attendance, and truancy remains one of gigantic and alarming proportions."[7] The necessity of making school attendance not only free but com-

(45) -pulsory was discussed at some length in this report.[8] It was pointed out that the "idea of compulsion" might be found in the principle, then well established, "that a state has a just moral claim upon so much of the property of the people as may be required to educate its children, and fit them for usefulness as good citizens." It was going only one step farther to urge that "compulsory school-tax paying . . . . for the noble purpose of educating and uplifting the people" ought surely to be accompanied by a provision that the end sought should not "fail of attainment through the indifference or perverseness of others. The hand that forcibly takes the tax money from the pocket of an unwilling non-resident to support a school in a distant district in which he has no personal interest is at least as rough and arbitrary as would be the hand that forcibly leads the children to the doors of the schoolroom . . . . . If a state may enact a general free school law, it may see that its supreme purpose is not defeated."[9]

A step forward was taken by the Constitutional Convention of 1870, which provided in the constitution itself[10] definite guaranties for the new school system. The eighth article of the

(46) new constitution was devoted to "education" and its first section laid upon the General Assembly the duty of providing "a thorough and efficient system of free schools, whereby all children of this state may receive a good common-school education."

By 1870, then, the free school system was not merely established; it was accepted without question and provided for in the fundamental law of the state. At this time , too, the compulsory attendance movement was making headway. In 1871 a bill which failed to pass was introduced into the legislature providing that all children between eight and fourteen years of age should be compelled to attend school for at least twelve weeks of the school year and that attendance should be consecutive during six weeks of that time. Already, too, the states of Arkansas and South Carolina had incorporated in their constitutions provisions requiring legislative enactment on the subject of compulsory school attendance, and Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, and other states had constitutional

(47) provisions empowering but not requiring such action by the state legislature.

In the meantime, in Illinois, the problems of truancy and non-attendance were being recognized as vitally important. In 1872 the state superintendent again discussed what, he said, had come to be looked upon as " the most important school question of modern times "-the question of how the children of the state were to be "protected against the wrongs and evils of illiteracy, and secured in their educational rights." He pointed out that at last the state had "a free school system, well established, thoroughly organized, and in successful operation"; it was therefore possible for the state to deal with the question of what should be done with those parents or guardians who refused to send their children to school.

There is, in short, much evidence to show that the evil of non-attendance was very great and that it was believed to be on the increase. It was said that, "taking all those portions of the state from which reports are at hand, the number of children who are even enrolled, in any given year, averages less than half the total school-going population."[11] For the first time probably attention was called to the fact that the increase of immigration made compulsory school attendance "a grave necessity,"[12] and it is of interest, too, that elaborate arguments were presented to show that compulsory school attendance, or "obligatory education" as it was more popularly called, was both constitutional and expedient. In summarizing his arguments the state superintendent made the following elaborate statement:

I think it has been shown that the legislative department may properly intervene to prevent those who have control of children, from compelling or permitting such children to grow up in ignorance;

(48) that such intervention is not an abuse of powers conferred, nor an unwarrantable assumption of powers not granted; that it is no improper invasion of personal liberty, nor of the authority and rights of parents, since it merely enforces the performance of parental duty, which cannot be regarded as an infraction of rights; that it is not inconsistent with rational freedom of conscience, that it puts the right of the child to be educated, above the right of the parent to keep it in ignorance; that it protects the many, who do educate their children, against the counteracting influence of the few, who will not; that it shields the innocent from cruel wrong, since starving the mind is worse than abusing the body; that it is grounded in the belief that to bring up children in ignorance willfully and without cause, is a crime, and should be treated as such, that such conduct on the part of those having the control of children, being a fruitful source of criminality, should be under the ban of legal condemnation, and the restraint of legal punishment; that the allegations as to the incompatibility of such laws with the nature and spirit of our political system, are unfounded, as also are the apprehensions concerning the assumed harshness and severity of their enforcement; that the operation of such laws, in many of the most enlightened states of Europe, is an indication of their wisdom and beneficence, affording an example that may be safely followed, that there is no proof that the masses of our people are opposed to such legislation, but, on the contrary, there is good reason to believe that general enlightenment on the subject, would result in general approval of the measure; that the exclusively voluntary policy has been, and is, but partially successful, while the accelerated influx of foreigners renders the adoption of new measures of education, without delay, a grave political necessity; - that the proposed legislative intervention is but an affirmance of the irrefutable truth, that if it is right to tax all for the education of all, then it is equally right to see that all are educated; that it is in the line of a general human right, and of a fundamental right of children, and is compulsory only as that right must be protected against any and all infringements; that it is required, to fully utilize the vast resources already devoted to public education, and to prevent enormous and increasing waste of money, property, and effort; and, finally, that it is demanded by the clearest principles of

(49) justice both to children and taxpayers-by the franchises conferred and implied in the constitution-by considerations of the highest political wisdom, and by the facts and exigencies that now exist in this state, and in every other state of the union.[13]

Attention has already been called to the fact that one of the early methods of securing attendance of children at school in the absence of a compulsory attendance law was to discipline the non-attending child by expelling him from school altogether. The state superintendent gravely pointed to this method of meeting the evil, as a legitimate one:

A scholar may lawfully be expelled for wilful and obstinate refusal to comply with any reasonable rule or regulation in regard to absence or tardiness. The right and duty of directors to make and enforce such regulations as will secure regularity and punctuality of attendance (those prime requisites of a good school) have been affirmed by several of our circuit courts, and by the supreme courts of many states, notably and recently by that of Iowa. The principle is inherently sound, being essential to the accomplishment of the purpose for which public schools exist; and it may be considered as now well settled and determined by the highest judicial authority. All that is required of directors in the premises is prudence and good sense in their rules, coupled with a proper regard for the rights and feelings of parents. No rule or requirement on the subject should be so framed as to involve any needless and offensive inquiry into the domestic affairs of families. Nothing of that kind is necessary to the accomplishment of the purpose aimed at.[14]

The superintendent of schools in Chicago in his report in 1876 was wise enough to point out that the suspension of wilful non-attendants was only "a reward for their truancy." Attention may be called, in passing, to the fact that this mode of punishing a non-attending child is not yet obsolete and that,

(50) unfortunately, in spite of our "compulsory" laws, suspension is still sometimes used as a method of punishing recalcitrant truants. Recently, for example, a little Greek boy who had been loitering in a poolroom for several days was brought into Hull-House by an officer. A resident of the House who knew the boy and knew that he was supposed to be attending a near-by Greek school asked why he was not there. "Because," he said, "the Greek schoolmaster said either I must come always or else I should never come," and he had, of course, preferred the second alternative.

During the decade 1870-80 the subject of compulsory school attendance was earnestly advocated by the school authorities, and in 1879 the newly created State Bureau of Labor Statistics[15] began the long struggle for a child labor law. As early as 1877 the legislature had attempted to regulate child labor by passing an act which made it unlawful for anyone having the custody of a child under fourteen years of age to allow him to engage in occupations "injurious to health or dangerous to life or limb."[16] This was entitled a law "to prevent and punish wrongs to children,"[17] and was designed to punish those who were directly promoting the dependency or delinquency of a child rather than to regulate child labor in general. In this same year, however, a law "providing for the health and safety of persons employed in coal mines , " was passed prohibiting the employment in coal mines of boys under twelve

(51) and of all women and girls; in 1879 the age limit was raised from twelve to fourteen for illiterate boys and in 1883 the age was raised to fourteen for all without regard to schooling.[18]

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its first biennial report, pointed out the necessity of a general child labor law and its corollary, a compulsory education law. The provisions asked for by the bureau were, however, very inadequate the prohibition of the employment of children under ten in factories and stores and three months' schooling each year for all children under fourteen. "The people of this state," said the report, "cannot afford to allow any increase of ignorance through the failure of parents and guardians to provide the younger generation with at least the elements of that education which is necessary for the welfare of the state as well as being a prerequisite to the poorer people in providing for themselves and their families a way by which they may know how to live better."[19]

And in December, 1882, the bureau again called attention in its second biennial report to the urgent necessity of making school attendance compulsory. It was estimated that nearly 25,000 children between the ages of eight and fifteen years, about 5 per cent of the total number of children of these ages, were not attending school at all; it was also estimated that about one-third of the non-attending children were kept out of school to work, and that the others were being neglected and were

(52) becoming delinquent.[1] In the following year, 1883, the first compulsory education law of Illinois was passed.

More than twenty-five years of agitation had been necessary to secure legislation providing for the support of the schools by taxation. In the quarter of a century that followed the passage of the free school law, the principle that the state might tax the property of its citizens to provide for the education of its children was embodied in the new constitution of Illinois and the legislature had taken another important step in advance by recognizing its right to make school attendance compulsory. But much remained to be done. It was left for the next quarter of a century to extend the provisions of the compulsory law and, by prohibiting child labor during the period of compulsory school attendance, to make possible its enforcement.


  1. Second Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of Illinois (1857-58), pp. 31-33 of the Appendix.
  2. See Fourth Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of Illinois (1861-62), pp. 5-21.
  3. In 1855 there were 9 public schools and 42 teachers with about 6,826 pupils. It is of interest that the highest salary paid to a man teacher was $1,200 and to a woman $400. Fifteen years earlier, in 1845, Chicago had only 4 teachers, all men; in 1845 the first public school building was erected (on Madison between Dearborn and State); in 1846 there were 10 teachers, 6 of whom were women; in 1850, 24 teachers, 20 of whom were women; at this time Chicago had a population Of 30,000 people. See Report of the Board of Education of Chicago,1855, pp. 22, 23; see also J. W. Cook, Educational History Of Illinois, pp. 460-62.
  4. The condition of the poorest children in a large city before the establishment of a compulsory law is almost incredible at the present time. The establishment in England and Scotland of the "Ragged Schools" for the vagrant children of the streets was followed in New York City by the founding of the so-called "Industrial Schools" of the Children's Aid Society. See Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York (New York, 1872), chap. xii. Thus Mr. Brace, in describing the "wild ragged little children" for whom these schools were founded, says: "Many were ashamed to go to the public schools; they were too irregular for their rules . . . . . The police were constantly arresting them as vagrants. . . . . . Though our Free Schools are open to all, . . . . v ast numbers of children are so ill-clothed and destitute that they are ashamed to attend .... or they are begging, or engaged in street occupations, and will not attend, or, if they do, attend very irregularly." For an account of the difficulty in compelling such children to attend school in Chicago, see p. 61 and p. 71 of this volume.
  5. Fourth Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public instruction of Illinois (1861-62), p. 19.
  6. Eleventh Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago (1864-65), p. 20.
  7. Seventh Biennial Report of Ike Superintendent of Public Instructionof Illinois (1867-68), p. 45.
  8. See Appendix I, doc. II, p. 375.
  9. For further and more detailed discussion of consequences of such legislation, see Eighth Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of Illinois (1869-70), P. 70. In the following year, it was again urged that the state had the power to pass a compulsory education law. The state superintendent reported that one out of every five or six children was not enrolled at all -- "not in school for so much as one day." Moreover, of those who did attend, only 65 per cent were regular attendants during the school term, short as it then was. Many, it was said, were "kept at home for their services at labor; in shops and factories, upon the farm and in the house . . . . ..
  10. The other provisions in the constitution of 1870, Article VIII, " Education," are as follows:
    "Sec. 2) All lands, moneys, or other property, donated, granted, or received for schools, college, seminary or university purposes, and the proceeds thereof, shall be faithfully applied to the objects for which such gifts or grants were made.
    "Sec. 3) Neither the general assembly nor any county, city, town, township, school district, or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatever; nor shall any grant or donation of land, money, or other personal property ever be made by the state or any such public corporation, to any church, or for any sectarian purpose.
    "Sec. 4) No teacher, state, county, township or district school officer shall be interested in the sale, proceeds or profits of any book, apparatus or furniture used or to be used in inv school in this state, with which such officer or teacher may be connected, under such penalties as may be provided by the general assembly.
    "Sec. 5) There may be a county superintendent of schools in each county, whose qualifications, powers, duties, compensation, and time and manner of election, and term of office, shall be prescribed by law."
  11. Ninth Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of Illinois (1871-72), p. 200.
  12. Ibid., pp. 224-25. also Appendix I, doc. 13, p 380 of this volume.
  13. Ninth Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of Illinois (1871-72), pp. 224-25.
  14. Ibid., p. 125.
  15. Illinois Session Laws, 1879, p. 61: "An act to create a Bureau of Labor Statistics and to provide for a Board of Commissioners and a Secretary."
  16. Among the occupations enumerated were "wire walking, dancing, begging, or peddling . . . . as a gymnast, contortionist, rider or acrobat . . . . or vocation injurious to the health or dangerous to the life or limb of such child" (Session Laws, 1877, p. 90). This was the so-called "Mendicant and Acrobatic act."
  17. Session Laws, 1877, pp. 90-91. See also Revised Statutes, 1885,chap. 38, sec. 53, p. 391.
  18. Session Laws, 1877, p. 140; ibid., 1879, p. 207; ibid., 1883, p. 118; Revised Statutes, 1885, chap. 93, sec. 6, p. 822. This law remained substantially unchanged for twenty years. In 1887, age affidavits were required of the boy's parents. Mine inspectors had early (law of 1872, amended 1877) been provided and they were to look after these provisions along with others. The age affidavit was to be kept on file for the inspector to see if he wished (Session Laws, 1887, p. 233; Revised Statutes, 1887, chap. 93, sec. 6).
  19. First Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics of Illinois for the Year Ending January 12, 1881, p. 237.
  20. "Very many of the other two-thirds are growing up not alone in ignorance but in vice, and from them will come the larger part of our criminals; for, though education and virtue do not always go together, the vicious are most commonly ignorant." A report of the superintendent of the Pontiac Reformatory was quoted to show that out of 241 boys connected with the Reformatory in the two years preceding, 136 could not write, 120 knew nothing of arithmetic, 39 could not read, and 124 others could read only in the first or the second reader. The superintendent commented that "this shows a bad state of things, when we consider that the average age of the boys committed was fourteen years and six months" (Second Biennial Report of Bureau of Labor Statistics of Illinois (1882), p. 374)

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