Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 4: The Growth of the Compulsory System, 1833-99

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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The first compulsory education law of Illinois, that of 1883, was entitled "An act to secure to all children the benefit of an elementary education," but the inadequate provisions of the law made the fulfilment of its purpose impossible. All children between the ages of eight and fourteen were required to attend school for a period of twelve weeks each year unless excused, and children could be excused by the board of education or the school directors "for any good cause." No provision was made for the enforcement of this law beyond the statement that "any taxpayer" could sue the board of education for failure to enforce it.[1] It was, however, made a defense to any suit if it could be shown (1) that the child's "mental or bodily condition" prevented school attendance; or (2) that the child had "acquired the branches of learning ordinarily taught in public schools"; or (3) that no public school had been "taught within two miles . . . . for twelve weeks during the year." Within a few years the failure of the law to effect any real improvement in school attendance became apparent. Friends of compulsory education did not hesitate to declare the law wholly unsatisfactory; and in 1888 a committee of the Chicago Board of Education declared that it was (c entirely ineffective and practically incapable of enforcement." At this time, five years after the law had been passed, it was estimated that in the state of Illinois there were 133,3 39 children under fifteen years of age who were not in school,[2] and that

(54) large numbers of children had never been enrolled in school at all.

The question of the possible enforcement of the law of 1883 was discussed by the Chicago Board of Education in 1888. A request from a member of the board that a committee be appointed to deal with the question of its enforcement was referred to the judiciary Committee. This request, which was submitted by a foreign-born member of the Board of Education, Hon. Charles Kozminski, was as follows:

To the President and Members of the Board of Education, in Session:

In the year 1883, the State of Illinois enacted a law for the compulsory education of children between the ages of eight and fourteen years. This law makes it compulsory upon every person having the control and charge of any such child to send it to a public or private school for a period of not less than twelve weeks in each school year, unless such child is excused from attending school by the Board of Education. Under this law, it is the duty of the Board of Education to prosecute every person who violates the law, and for neglecting its duty, the Board of Education or its members are punishable by fine. In the City of Chicago, large numbers of children, through the selfishness, neglect, or indifference of parents and guardians, never see the inside of a schoolroom, but grow up to manhood or womanhood without the training and education so necessary in a republican form of government and so essential to the welfare of the community.

Therefore, Be it Resolved, by this Board, that a Committee of three be appointed, whose duty it shall be forthwith to confer with the authorities of the City of Chicago, for the purpose of enforcing the compulsory education law, against parents and guardians who violate the same.[3]

The committee to which the resolution was referred reported back that " in the opinion of the committee " the law of 1883 was not "nugatory, invalid, or inoperative" as had been claimed. Attention was called, however, to the lack of school

(55) accommodations, and it was pointed out that "if there were enough schoolhouses, it would not be found a hard task to get the children to attend," but that the law could not possibly be enforced until there were enough schools "conveniently located to receive pupils." The committee, however, although it reported that very little could be accomplished "in the way of compelling the attendance of children without greater facilities than are now at the command of the board," made certain recommendations in the belief that something should be done "to show the people that the spirit of the law is cordially recognized by the board." The recommendations included a provision for publicity regarding the requirements of the law and the board's intention to enforce it "where practicable"; free textbooks for indigent pupils; the appointment of a prosecuting attorney; some provision for educating pauper children; the assignment of teachers to charitable or correctional institutions for children on request of the authorities; and, finally, the establishment of a department of compulsory education.[4]

The attention given to this subject by the board was undoubtedly due in part to the public indignation over the failure to enforce the compulsory education law. The Chicago Woman's Club had sent to the board a petition stating that

WHEREAS, The appalling increase of crime among youth, the large number of vagrant children, and the employment of child labor in the city of Chicago is fraught with danger to the commonwealth:

Therefore, We, the Chicago Woman's Club, respectfully ask your honorable body immediately to take the necessary measures to secure the enforcement of the Illinois statute of 1883, providing for compulsory education.

The reply to the petition merely stated that the board had the question of compulsory school attendance under consideration. A committee of the board was appointed to consult with

(56) other organizations and individuals interested in the subject and to draw up a new law to " cover all the requirements of the case." This committee on January 9, 1889, reported that it had prepared a digest of the laws of the different states relating to compulsory education and that it had called a public meeting " to which members of the committee and other bodies interested in the enforcement of the compulsory education law" were invited. The committee also reported that it believed that an attempt should be made to enforce the old law and that the mayor had said that he "was ready to direct the entire police force to aid in the enforcement of the old law as it now stands." Resolutions were adopted at this same board meeting providing for the appointment of three attendance officers, one for each division of the city, who were to be under the immediate direction and control of the special Committee on Compulsory Education. These attendance agents were to investigate and to report cases arising under the Compulsory Education act, and were instructed to "make daily visits to the police station in their respective districts and receive the police reports of the names and addresses of the children apparently between the ages of eight and fourteen years, whom the police have found on the streets during the school hours of any school day." The resolutions further declared that the Board of Education considered it the duty not only of the teachers but of the engineer and janitor of every school to report to their principal the names and addresses of all children between the ages of eight and fourteen years in their respective school districts, who were believed not to have attended any school for twelve weeks during the preceding school year. The list of all children so reported was to be transmitted by the principal to the clerk of the board at the close of each week.

Interest in the subject continued to increase with the hope of obtaining a more satisfactory law from the legislature then in session, and on January 19, 1889, a large public meeting was

(57) held in Chicago to discuss the need of an effective compulsory system. On January 23, 1889, at the request of the committee on Compulsory Education, the board voted to increase the number of attendance agents to seven, " three of whom shall be ladies"; a clerk to "collate" their statistics was appointed, and it was arranged that registers should be supplied to each of the police stations, in which cases brought to the attention of the police might be recorded.

At the same meeting the superintendent of schools called attention to the relation between non-attendance and child labor and reported that, as a result of the agitation regarding the enforcement of the compulsory education law, some employers had refused to continue to employ boys under fourteen without a permit from the Board of Education.

A few months later the chairman of the Committee on Compulsory Education reported to the Board of Education that more than 5,200 cases of non-attending or truant children had been investigated by the attendance agents, and " that notices had been sent to the parents of 173 children who had failed to comply with the provisions of the Compulsory Education act, and that these cases were now ready for prosecution." These prosecutions, however, were never proceeded with, for in the meantime the movement for a new compulsory education law had been successful.

Three bills, one relating to compulsory education, another to child labor, and a third to truant children, all of which had been adopted at a citizens' meeting and presented to the Board of Education, were later indorsed by the board and forwarded to the General Assembly at Springfield. The child labor bill and the truant bill died in the committee room at Springfield, and a compulsory education bill already pending in the legislature was accepted by the board as a substitute for its own bill. This substitute measure, which became a law on July 1, 1889, was unanimously passed by the Senate, and had only six votes

(58) recorded against it in the House. The new law was considered far from satisfactory by those who desired a stringent and easily enforceable statute, but it was, in the words of the president of the Chicago board, accepted "as a 'lick and a promise,' " in the belief that attempts to enforce it would demonstrate the necessity for amendments. The president also pointed out the fact that the necessary provision for truant children and for child labor regulation which had been demanded by the board had been refused by the legislature. "They properly go with the compulsory education bill," he declared, "and it is necessary to have them passed in order to have a compulsory education act in good working shape."

The new law of 1889 was in several respects much better than the old law of 1883, although it still set a very low educational standard. The total period of compulsory attendance was increased from twelve to sixteen weeks, and attendance was required to be consecutive during eight weeks. A further improvement was contained in a provision requiring the board of education in every school district to appoint one or more truant officers. The act also provided that children might attend not only public schools but also any private schools "approved by the Board of Education," but it was expressly stated that only such schools as taught the common branches in English might be approved.

In Chicago during the following summer careful preparations were made in order that the new law might be enforced when the school term began. A superintendent of compulsory education and twelve attendance agents were appointed. Special circulars explaining the law to parents, to school principals, and to employers were drawn up and sent out by the Board of Education. Fifty-five thousand circulars were printed for parents and guardians in seven different languages, German, Italian, Bohemian, Swedish, Polish, Yiddish, and Norwegian. A circular letter was sent to the principals of 171

(59) private and parochial schools on September 3, asking for the list of children of compulsory education age who were attending school; but up to November 13 only thirty-two replies had been received.[5]

The failure to pass a child labor law left open, of course, the greatest temptation to the children and their parents to disobey the compulsory education law. The Board of Education recognized this difficulty, and, since there was at this time no law prohibiting child labor except in the mines and in a few especially dangerous occupations, it was decided to make an appeal to the public spirit of the merchants and manufacturers who employed children between the ages of seven and fourteen and to ask their aid in enforcing the new law and in getting these children into school. The following circular was therefore sent to all proprietors of shops, stores, and factories, and a blank was inclosed to be returned to the board with the names of all the children employed in any establishment:

The object of this circular is not only to inform you that the Compulsory Education Law enacted by the Legislature of the State of Illinois, went into effect July 1, 1889, but to ask your hearty co-operation during the coming scholastic year, by not employing any children between the ages of seven and fourteen years, as set forth in the law.

The Board respectfully, yet urgently, desires your assistance in this direction as an incentive to idle and pernicious parents and guardians, that they shall undertake the burden of labor and support

(60) for their families, and permit the tender children to attend school and receive an education that will adapt them to labor more intelligently and with increased ambition . . . . .

Out Of 2,591 employers to whom this circular was sent only 300 sent any reply. A few employers expressed disapproval of the law, but the great majority of those who replied not only assured the superintendent of schools of their willingness to obey the law but declared their sympathy with its purpose and provisions.[6] A further step toward the control of child labor was the appointment of a special attendance officer for work in the shops, stores, and factories. Unfortunately the children who sold newspapers or blacked boots on the streets had no employers whose co-operation could be sought. These children who were most in need of help were then, as now, protected with the greatest difficulty.

In spite of the efforts made by the Board of Education to carry out the provisions of the law, many difficulties were encountered in attempting to enforce it. Large numbers of people could not be made to believe that the legislature had the power to compel them to send their children to school. The condition of many of those children who were brought to school under compulsion showed how disastrous the old policy of non-enforcement had been. The superintendent reported, for example, that 3,528 children were "subjects for reform schools," and the Committee on Compulsory Education called

(61) to the attention of the board "the large number of incorrigible children and the necessity of, by some means, providing them with at least the rudiments of an English education." The committee reported that it believed that--

this class of unfortunates, who, either from improper training and unwholesome surroundings at home, or from an unnatural perversity of disposition evade their school duties, and who, when brought to school by the attendance agent, cause sufficient disturbance to have their absence heartily desired by the teacher and principal should be placed in a separate room or building and under a different system of discipline.

The neglected condition of some of the non-attending and truant children in Chicago at this time is described in the first report of the superintendent of compulsory education. Many parents, it was said, regarded their children " as so many moneymaking machines and kept them in filth in order to create sympathy for them." These children, it was said, could not be reached by the policy of moral suasion that the board had decided upon, and a delegation of citizens called and asked that the law be invoked in their behalf.

The complaint was made that these neglected children had become so lawless and undisciplined, and their physical condition so distressing, that their presence created great disorder in the schools in which they were enrolled. The superintendent of compulsory education thought that children of this type were not fit to be sent to school with other children and that an ungraded school or room was needed, where they could be placed until they acquired habits of cleanliness and order and until the danger of disturbing the discipline of the schools might be removed. Many children brought in from the streets and alleys, it was found, were " not fitted for the ordinary schoolroom, being physically as well as mentally incapacitated by their previous life for quiet and continuous study."

(62) Moreover, these children soon dropped out of school or were suspended for misconduct.

The suggestion of an ungraded room was soon followed by a demand for a parental school. As the president of the Board of Education said in his annual report:

One of the greatest needs of the city, made almost imperative by the compulsory law, is a family school in each of the several sections of the city with facilities for some simple work, as well as study, under the charge of well-prepared teachers, in which the little waifs of the community, now growing up in want and wickedness, may be tenderly cared for, and trained to habits of industry, intelligence, and honorable citizenship.

Nearly a decade, however, was to pass before the legislature of Illinois passed the parental school law that was so urgently needed.

The report of the work of the new truant officers during the first six weeks of the school year showed that the officers had investigated the cases of 2,191 truant and 2,691 nonattending children, a total Of 4,882 children, of whom only 1,523 had been returned to school. The superintendent was impatient of the method of moral suasion and thought that the law should be invoked to punish persistent violators.

This much had been accomplished [he reported] without invoking the aid of the law, in a quiet persuasive manner, but there is another side of the question. There are a very large number of children who cannot be reached without the aid of the law. Many are at work in stores and factories who should be in the schools, who have no valid cause or excuse for not being there, not even poverty, for the entire number of such as reported are Only 265 cases up to the present time.[7]

( 63)

Much to the surprise, evidently, of the superintendent, poverty was alleged as the excuse for non-attendance in a very small number of cases.

Throughout the year, however, the policy of moral suasion was adhered to and no arrests for violating the compulsory education law were made in Chicago. The Board of Education prided itself on the fact that there had been "not a single instance of interference with parental authority, no prosecution or persecution." - This policy was continued during the next year, and the Committee on Compulsory Education reiterated with evident satisfaction that, although another year had gone by, there had still been " no interference with parental authority, no arrests had been made, not a single case of prosecution or persecution, the strength of moral persuasiveness had been used in taking the children off the streets and placing them in school." The president of the board in his report for the year 1889-go, noted that while the new statute had not accomplished all that its ardent friends desired, there had nevertheless "been a clear step toward''; (sic) he commended the law as sound in principle and called attention to the fact that the discussion concerning its enforcement had helped to educate the public to a realization of the right of the state "as a measure of public safety, to require that all children within its borders shall be given some elementary education."

By way of summary it may be said that a great deal of interest and honest effort on the part of the Board of Education had gone into giving the law a fair trial in Chicago, and it may be taken as a measure of the progress made in the last twenty-five years that, from the standpoint of today, moral suasion would in general he regarded as a poor substitute for the more vigorous methods of enforcement that have been adopted since that time.

Although poverty was alleged as an excuse for a very small percentage of the cases of non-attendance and truancy, it was

(64) a peculiarly hard excuse to meet in those few cases. The Committee on Compulsory Education authorized the superintendent " in all cases of extreme poverty or infirmities " to use discretion in granting permission to work and to attend night school, but an organized effort was also made to provide for the children who alleged lack of shoes or clothes as a reason for absence from school. An auxiliary committee of the Chicago Woman's Club founded the School Children's Aid Society,[8] an organization still in existence, whose object is to provide new shoes and clothing for needy school children; and the aid of such charitable organizations as existed was enlisted. The county board was asked to appropriate "relief funds for clothing and feeding poor children whose parents or guardians are unable to support them while attending school." Rather grandiloquently it was said that "while the county provides homes, food, clothing, shoes, medicine, and medical attendance for the criminal, the pauper, and the invalid, it is fair to presume that it is within

(65) their province to provide clothing and shoes for indigent children, so that they might attend school, and in a measure save them from the pernicious effects of bad company and often very evil associates."

The net results of the first year's work under the new law showed that the cases of nearly 17,500 children had been investigated by the truant officers of Chicago and that 7,380 Of these children had been placed in the public day schools, 983 in evening schools, and 1,436 in private or parochial schools--a total of 9,799 children placed in school. That is, the law, imperfect as it was, had brought nearly 10,000 children into the schools of Chicago. More than this, the law seems to have been similarly beneficial all over Illinois. The public school enrolment for the state as a whole showed an increase of 16,454 pupils over the preceding year. It is important to note, however, that in other parts of the state as well as in Chicago, whatever improvement in school attendance occurred was not due to prosecutions. Not only in Chicago, but also in Springfield and in the other cities of the state, not a single suit was brought, and the state superintendent charged that, although penalties had been inflicted in a few cases in rural districts, the purpose of the prosecution had been " to bring the law into disrepute and to use it as an instrument for arousing prejudice."

But it must not be overlooked that the law had been completely ignored in some districts and that, although school attendance had increased, the purposes of the law were far from being fulfilled. Thus the state superintendent reported at the close of the first year of its operation:

The law has been very imperfectly executed. In many places no attempt has been made to put it in force. The unreasonable clamor against it has often dissuaded its friends from attempting its enforcement. It is quite certain that the obstructions put into the way of a reasonable execution of this law have had the effect greatly to discourage those who desire to use it as a means of doing good.


Conditions changed very slightly during the second school year following the enactment of the law of 1889. The number of attendance officers in Chicago had been increased from 7 in 1889 to 14 in 1890 and was further increased to 18 in 1891. The number of cases of truant and of unenrolled children investigated had increased from 17,463 to 20,325, while the number returned to school had increased from 9,799 to 11,254. It was also reported that, during the school year 1890-91, 820 working permits had been issued to children of compulsory school age "whose necessities had compelled them to secure employment." But in the attempt to regulate child labor an important step forward was soon to be taken.

Unfortunately there was, in addition to the difficulties of enforcement already alluded to, a powerful influence working against the law throughout the state--the hostility of the parochial schools. The opposition of the German Lutheran schools in particular seems to have been aroused by the provision of the law requiring instruction "in English" during the period of compulsory school attendance. Although a large number of the children brought in under the law, 1,500 in Chicago alone had been entered in parochial schools, and although the state as a whole showed an increase of 6,729 in the number of children enrolled in these schools, where there had been an actual decrease in enrolment during the preceding year, the friends of the parochial schools undoubtedly tried to prevent the enforcement of the law.

In Chicago the controversy with the parochial schools seems not to have been so acute as in the rural districts, although the report for the year 1891-92, the second year of the operation of the "new" compulsory law, shows their opposition still active. In the annual report of the Board of Education for the year 1892 the following statement occurs regarding the parochial school situation:


While there has been a controversy over some of the special provisions of the law relating to the language in which the children should be instructed, and the supervision of private schools, there had been no controversy that has been brought to the Board of Education. From the first action of enforcing the law, the attendance officers were instructed to notify the parents or guardians whose children did not attend school , that they must go to school somewhere for the time indicated in the statute, which was sixteen weeks. At no time has there been any demand made that the children should attend the public schools when the parents expressed a wish to have them attend a private school.

The biennial report of the superintendent of schools in Cook County for the period 1888-go contained the following interesting statement on this subject:

It was soon learned that many of the German schools in the county could not provide for the proper instruction of their children even in English reading and writing, not including the other branches named in the law. The importance of being able to speak and write in English was generally acknowledged, but that knowledge of arithmetic, geography, and history should be required in English was resisted. In many of the German schools an honest effort was made to teach English. In some of them the teachers were not qualified to teach it, and the children in such localities do not speak the English language.

In the villages and city of Chicago, where the children come in contact with the English-speaking children, there is no difficulty in acquiring the language. In the rural districts where the children do not hear the English language spoken, either at school or in the home, there certainly is need of enforcing instruction in English.

It is generally conceded that the state has a right to demand that children shall have an opportunity to fit themselves for citizenship. That children should acquire the ability to read and write the English language, in which the laws of the land are written, is generally conceded. That every person should be able to perform his duty as a citizen, to serve on juries, and to be a witness without an

(68) interpreter, ought not to be disputed. Ignorance in a country where the people govern is dangerous to its institutions.

The state superintendent of public instruction in his report for 1889-go makes a statement which seems to have been designed to allay any misgivings or fears that may have been felt by the friends of the parochial schools. Thus he says:

The compulsory education law does not necessarily interfere with parochial or other private schools. In the enactment of it there was no intention of such interference. It specially provides that attendance at such schools shall be accepted in lieu of attendance upon public schools . . . . . The authority conferred by the law upon the board of directors does not empower them to ignore the facts of the case, and of their own whim refuse to recognize a private school . . . . . And the statistics of the year show, conclusively, that no such injury to private schools has resulted from the execution of the law. On the contrary, it seems to have helped them.

Unfortunately the parochial school opposition led to the omission of the requirement of compulsory instruction in English from the later compulsory laws, and the subsequent development of the bilingual schools described in a later chapter must be regarded as an educational and social misfortune.(9)


  1. Session Laws, 1883, p. 167.
  2. Eighteenth Biennial Report of Superintendent of Public Instruction of Illinois (1888-90), p. lxxxiv.
  3. Proceedings of the Board of Education of Chicago, September, 1888, to August 9, 1889, p. 41.
  4. Proceedings of the Board of Education of Chicago, September, 1888, to August 9, 1889, p. 75.
  5. The text of the letter was as follows: "in order to carry out completely the Compulsory Education Law of the State of Illinois, as enacted by the Legislature and now in force, and avoid the evasive and untruthful replies of children, parents or guardians, as to their attending other than the public schools, will you be kind enough to fill up the accompanying blank of the pupils attending your schools, between the ages of seven and fourteen years, and such additions as may occur from time to time?" Proceedings of the Board of Education of Chicago, August 21, 1889, to July 9, 1890, p. 105.
  6. It is of interest that in these replies from employers, according to the superintendent of compulsory education, "many warm encomiums were expressed upon the benefit of the law, with the assurance that it would receive their hearty support; that child labor should not be permitted; that education was the salvation of the Republic and that they would not employ children between the ages designated in the law." That children were extensively employed at this time is indicated by the fact that a single mercantile firm reported 175 children under fourteen years of age employed in its establishment (Proceedings of the Board of Education of Chicago, August 21, 1889, to July 9, 1890, p. 105).
  7. Proceedings of the Board of Education of Chicago, 1889-90, p. 106. The following extract from the superintendent's report is of interest: "One attendance agent reports that during the past week, no reports were received whatever from six schools. This would indicate that truancy is on the wane. The agent claims it is the success of compulsory education." It may, of course, have been the indifference of the principals.
  8. 'The School Children's Aid Society has survived through all the changes of the last twenty-five years and is still an active organization. Founded in 1888 as an auxiliary committee of the Chicago Woman's Club, it is now maintained largely through the collection that is made for its support at Thanksgiving time each year in the public schools. The receipts from the children's offerings amounted to nearly $16,000 in 1915. In addition, donations of clothing are received by the society. In spite of the great increase in the number of charitable relief societies and in spite of the activities of the county agent who in 1913, for example, furnished 5,603 pairs of shoes to school children, the society is still maintained for the purpose for which it was founded, viz., to provide new clothing for children who would otherwise be unable to attend the Chicago public schools. Cases needing assistance are recommended by principals and teachers, records are kept of aid given, and although it is said that "each case is investigated," these investigations must be very inadequate, and the recommendation of the different principals very largely relied on. The society has no salaried officers and pays no rent. Its distributing rooms are in the centrally located Haven School on Wabash Avenue near Sixteenth Street. During 1905, 4,160 children were helped and the total expenditures were $6,043.36; during 1915, 8,767 children were helped and $15,921.32 expended.
  9.  For a discussion of the bilingual schools, see chap. xviii, "The Special Problem of the Immigrant Child."

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