Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools
Chapter 5: Parallel Development of the Illinois Child Labor and Compulsory Education Laws, 1893-1916
Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge
The compulsory education law of 1889 was strengthened in July, 1891, by the first general child labor law ever passed by the legislature of Illinois. Unfortunately, however, the new child labor law was quite as crude and unsatisfactory as the compulsory education laws that were already on the statute books. It was made unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to employ or hire any child under thirteen years of age without a certificate, but the board of education was given authority to excuse any such child from school and to authorize his employment, provided his labor was needed for the support of any aged or infirm relative and provided the child had attended school at least eight weeks in the current year. The system of allowing children to work if their relatives seemed to be in need meant, of course, that the children most in need of the protection of child labor and compulsory education laws would be entirely excluded from their benefits. The law was also weak in that it contained no provision for enforcement. While the child under thirteen could not be employed unless he had a certificate from the board of education, no machinery was provided for issuing such certificates, nor was any proof of age required to show that children who were employed were over the compulsory attendance age.
In Chicago the way had been prepared for a child labor law by the City Council, which had passed an ordinance prohibiting the employment of children under fourteen unless they had special work-permits issued by the superintendent of compulsory education. During the year a special attendance officer
(70) was detailed by the Board of Education to visit factories and to notify employers of the provision of the law, but the work of this single inspector was necessarily ineffective, and the superintendent of schools reported that those who had investigated the subject believed that many children under fourteen years of age were working in factories in different parts of the city. Moreover, under the authority of the Board of Education many children had been "excused" from school because of their poverty. During the year, 1,077 children between the ages of ten and thirteen years were officially "excused" from school and given work-permits for the following reasons: 288 because of "poverty," 261 because of "intemperance" (presumably the intemperance of their fathers who were thus rendered in need of their children's earnings), 508 because they were orphans or deserted by their parents, and 20 for miscellaneous reasons. All that Chicago could do for her dependent children was to give them work-permits and excuses from school, allowing them to work in factories and support themselves and their intemperate parents.
Recommendations looking toward certain definite improvements in the compulsory education law were made by a committee of the Chicago Board of Education in 1892 at the close of the school year. Two important changes were suggested: first, that the law should require compulsory school attendance of all children under thirteen years of age, during the entire time that the schools were in session; and, second, that provision should be made for the enforcement of a penalty against parents or guardians who wilfully deprived their children of the benefits of an education. The committee pointed out that, as a result of the fact that no penalty had ever been imposed for the wilful violation of the compulsory law, many people had come to disregard the official notices which were sent to them , and positively refused to comply with the requirements of the law. Many instances, it was said, had been reported where
(71) parents and guardians had "wilfully compelled young children to labor that they might profit by their small earnings. Had the law been enforced in a few of the extreme cases of such violations, as reported by the attendance officers, the effect would have been wholesome on a large number who would have immediately complied with the reasonable provisions of the statutes."
The report of the committee also called attention to the lack of provision "for the care, maintenance, and education of neglected and wayward children." The schools were unable to meet the needs of these children who were frequently brought into the schoolrooms off the streets, who were unaccustomed to a disciplinary routine, and who were a source of demoralization to the other children. Separate schools were recommended for these children, where special provision could be made not only for their schooling but "for their bodily care and proper preparation for contact with others in a schoolroom." The wastefulness of the failure to provide for these children was emphasized. According to the report, the statistics of the Police Court, the County jail and Bridewell, show a large number of children who annually become violators of the law, and are placed under arrest. They are then supported at public expense in a building built by public taxes, and cared for and watched by paid officers. These children have become criminals, and a charge upon the city or county by somebody's neglect. The Board of Education has not been authorized to care for this class of children. Nobody cared for them until they became violators of the law, and enemies to good society. Provision should be made at once for the detention and support of neglected children, and they should receive , training and instruction that will lead them to habits of cleanliness, order, submission to authority, and a useful life.
But at this time a new and dramatic influence was brought to bear upon the compulsory education situation-the influence of Hull-House, Chicago's first "social settlement," which had
(72) been established a few years earlier by Miss Jane Addams in the heart of the great industrial neighborhood of Chicago's "West Side." Among the little group of social reformers who joined Miss Addams in the early days of the settlement was Mrs. Florence Kelley, who for nearly a quarter of a century was to be the embodiment of the public conscience on the subject of child labor and its attendant evils. The residents of the new settlement, living where they saw day by day how inadequate and ineffective the child labor and compulsory education laws really were, set about securing the necessary improvements in these laws. Mrs. Kelley, as a first step, suggested to the Illinois State Bureau of Labor Statistics that an investigation of the sweating system should be made in Chicago, for she believed that large numbers of children who should have been in school were at work in sweatshops all over the West Side. Not only was the suggestion adopted, probably because of the social sympathies of the radical Governor Altgeld, but Mrs. Kelley was commissioned as a special investigator to make this inquiry; and as a result of the presentation of her report to the next legislature, a special legislative committee was appointed to report on Chicago institutions. The report of this special committee, supported by the untiring efforts of the labor unions and by the propaganda carried on by Miss Addams and Mrs. Kelley, secured the passage in the next legislature of a new "act concerning the education of children" and a new child labor law, both of which went into effect on the first of July, 1893.
Unfortunately, the new compulsory education law was still far from being the effective measure that was needed. It
(73) marked no real advance over the old law and in some respects was even less satisfactory. It contained the same provision as the law of 1889 requiring sixteen weeks' school attendance during the year, and it extended the required period of consecutive attendance from eight to twelve weeks. But the old provision that the compulsory regulations could be met only by attendance at schools offering instruction "in English" was dropped to please the friends of the parochial schools, and the appointment of truant officers, which in the earlier law had been mandatory on boards of education, was in the new law made permissive--two distinctly retrograde steps.
The new child labor law, on the other hand, was a brilliant piece of social legislation for that time. Mrs. Kelley's impetuous fire and her vivid and relentless pictures of child labor conditions had been irresistible. The new law provided that children under fourteen could no longer work in "factories, manufacturing establishments, and workshops"; that children under sixteen must furnish affidavits giving their age; and that every employer must keep a register and post a wall list containing the names, ages, and addresses of all children under that age employed in his establishment. Most important of all, the law carried provisions for its enforcement by providing for a department of factory inspection with a chief factory inspector and twelve deputies, and Governor Altgeld distinguished himself by appointing Mrs. Kelley as the first chief factory inspector of Illinois. The law also contained an advanced provision, which unfortunately proved to be ineffective, giving the factory inspectors the right to demand a doctor's certificate of physical fitness from any working child under sixteen and to prohibit the Child's employment if a certificate could not be obtained.
The law was still weak in many respects, and Mrs. Kelley never allowed the public to forget that, however much had been done, there was still a great deal that had been left undone. The children of Illinois were not yet as well protected as the children of Massachusetts or New York. The new Illinois law, for example, applied only to manufacturing establishments, and it was not until 1897 that its provisions were extended to "offices, stores, and mercantile establishments." Nothing was done and up to the present time nothing has yet been done by the state for the street-trading children, who are still waiting for protection. Mrs. Kelley, in the chief factory inspector's report for 1894, spoke of the neglected condition of these children; there were, she said, among them thousands of children between seven and fourteen who were still not attending school, a horde of little peddlers of fruit, vegetables, and other wares. These children learn no trade and form only habits of roaming the street, irresponsible and lawless. When children are expelled from school at eleven years of age, and prohibited from working in factories until fourteen, they are apt to fall into this class. They could be reached by requiring every peddler or vendor under sixteen years of age to obtain a license from the State Factory Inspector, and prohibiting all such work for children under the age of fourteen years, and for illiterate children under sixteen years.
The experience of a few months with these two laws clearly demonstrated one fact-that a well-enforced compulsory education law must precede or accompany a child labor law if child labor is really to be prohibited or even regulated. A good compulsory education law, well enforced, may in fact prevent child labor, whereas a child labor law unaccompanied by a compulsory education law takes children out of the factories and workshops only to throw them into the street.
The very interesting sections dealing with the subject of child labor in Mrs. Kelley's first annual report are reprinted in an appendix to this volume, and attention may be called, in
(75) passing, to the fact that these first four reports of the state factory inspectors of Illinois, prepared while Mrs. Kelley was in charge of the office, are like no other official reports that have ever been issued in the state, so moving and human are they, so full of indignant satire, so honest in their relentless description of conditions as they really existed, with no attempt to cover up or conceal the evils with which the state must deal. The first of these remarkable "annual reports" shows that one of the most lamentable results of the inadequacy of the compulsory education laws was a shocking state of illiteracy among the children. Children unable to spell their names, or the names of the streets on which they lived, were found at work every day by the indefatigable inspectors of this new state department. In her report the chief inspector declared:
Where these children are under fourteen years of age, they are turned over to the compulsory attendance officer of the Board of Education, but for those over the age of fourteen the state prescribes no educational requirement, and unless they look deformed, undersized, or diseased, the inspectors have no ground upon which to withdraw them from their life of premature toil. And in no case can we insist upon rudimentary education for them.
In this respect the Illinois law is far from abreast with the laws of Massachusetts and New York. In Massachusetts every child must attend some school throughout the period during which the public schools are in session until fourteen years of age. And in towns and cities in which there is manual training in the schools, the children must attend school until the completion of the fifteenth year. New York goes even further, and empowers her inspectors to order peremptorily the discharge of any child under sixteen years of age who cannot read and write simple sentences in the English language. Such a clause as this last one would cause the transfer of many hundreds of Illinois children from the factory to the schoolroom.
Another difficulty encountered by the chief factory inspector was the fact that many of the children who were in the greatest need of schooling were expelled or suspended for bad conduct soon after they were placed in school. Before 1893 the school authorities had already called attention to the neglected state of these children, but professed themselves helpless until a parental school law should make it possible to care for them outside of the regular schoolrooms.Instead of suspending refractory and vicious children from our schools [said the annual report of the Chicago Board of Education] provision should be made so that a child who is not manageable with better children, shall first be placed under the care of special teachers in a disciplinary school, and when they become unmanageable by parents and teachers, they should be confined in a parental home or school, thus providing a means of properly educating and training every child.
The school census of 1894 showed 6,887 children between the ages of seven and fourteen out of school, a fact to which Mrs. Kelley repeatedly called public attention. The work of
(77) her own department was, she reiterated, entirely nullified, so far as the protection of the children was concerned, by the inability of the school authorities to place in school the children removed by her inspectors from factories and workshops. The intimation is plain in Mrs. Kelley's reports that the Chicago Board of Education was not doing its duty, and she repeatedly urged that the prosecution of parents who disobeyed the law should be made mandatory upon boards of education which then boasted of the fact that they relied wholly on "moral suasion." In her second annual report Mrs. Kelley says:
Although the law prohibits absolutely the employment of any child under fourteen years of age in manufacture, yet the children under fourteen years can never be wholly kept out of the factories and workshops until they are kept in school. At present the school attendance law is almost useless, at least in Chicago, where the largest number of children have been found at work. Although the Chicago Board of Education employs attendance agents, yet children leave school to sell papers; to carry cash in stores, and telegrams and messages in streets, to peddle, black boots, "tend the baby," or merely to idle about. Unruly children are expelled from school to suit the convenience of teachers. Principals of schools have sent to the inspectors children eleven years old, with the written request that permits be granted to enable the children to go to work (in violation of the factory law) because in each case the child is "incorrigible." As no factory can be a better place for a child eleven years old than
(78) a reasonably good school, this request voices the desire of the principal to be relieved of the trouble of the child.
Of the thousands of children out of work, it was charged that "hundreds are seeking work in shops and factories, and when they find work and the laws of the state are thereby violated, the task of prosecution, which should fall in part at least on the Board of Education of Chicago, devolves upon the State Factory Inspectors alone." The charge was also made that out of 103 children reported to the Department of Compulsory Education by the factory inspectors during the three months of the fall term of 1893, only 31 were ever placed in school. Some of the remaining children were not found, others were given permits to work in stores, others were dropped as "incorrigible," and finally, "in fifteen cases the mere statement of the parent that the child was over fourteen was received by the compulsory department as sufficient reason for dropping the case, although in each such case the parent declined, in dealing with us, to make affidavit to show the child to be more than fourteen years old." In the report for 1894, Mrs. Kelley charged that the child labor law was being nullified by the indifference of the educational authorities. She wrote vigorously as follows:
The humane intent of the first clause of Section 4 of the workshop and factory law is obvious: that the child under fourteen years is to be safeguarded by the state against employment injurious to it. This intent is nullified if the child is not kept in school, but drifts from one workshop into another, or from the factories into the streets. We therefore recommend that the legislature make the prosecution of derelict parents not as it now is, merely discretionary with the local school boards, but mandatory upon them; as the prosecution of manufacturers is made mandatory upon the factory inspectors by Section 9 of the factory law.
Mrs. Kelley also pointed out that although the state factory inspectors had obtained the conviction of twenty-five employers
(79) upon thirty-three charges of having in their factories or workshops children under fourteen years of age, not once had any of these parents been prosecuted under the school laws for permitting their children's unlawful employment and absence from school.
As a result of Mrs. Kelley's persistent and disquieting charges, the standing Committee of the Board of Education on Compulsory Education again took up the much-vexed question as to the value of the Department of Compulsory Education. This committee recommended, as other committees had done, the establishment of a parental school for non-attending and incorrigible children and such changes in the law as were necessary to make mandatory the prosecution of indifferent parents who were neglecting their children. The final and astonishing recommendation was that the Department of Compulsory Education should be either curtailed or abolished, since its efforts on behalf of the children most needing service were ineffectual. The committee not only recom-
(80) -mended the abolition of the department, but suggested that the funds used for the salaries of the attendance officers be diverted to support a kindergarten system. The whole report was an open confession of failure on the part of the board in face of the chief factory inspector's running fire of criticism. The Department of Compulsory Education had failed, according to the committee, "in getting into school the large class of nonattendants." It was pointed out that the average attendance of children returned to school through the agents was only thirty-five days (six weeks of the school year), and that the non-attendant children, for whom the law was chiefly designed, usually remained in school but a few days at a time.
They are brought in [said the report], stay a day or two, disappear; are again hunted up, come for a day or two, and stop, and so on. Under these conditions your Committee feel justified in asking if the money spent on the Compulsory Department could not be better expended and do more good if used to extend the kindergarten system. . . . . Your committee therefore beg leave to suggest that
(81) in another year the Department of Compulsory Education be curtailed and abolished, and that, in its place, the kindergarten be maintained, believing the latter will do far more for the prevention of truancy than the former can do under the most favorable circumstances to overcome the habit once formed.
The astonishing recommendation of this committee that funds set aside for the support of the compulsory attendance officers be used to instal a kindergarten system was not adopted, and the Department of Compulsory Education was retained, although it continued to be thoroughly ineffectual. In 1896, after three years' experience as chief factory inspector, Mrs. Kelley announced in the annual report of the chief factory inspector that the compulsory school law remained "a dead letter," that no prosecution had ever been undertaken for its enforcement by any board of education, and that the weakness of its provisions continued to serve as an excuse for continued failure to prosecute parents for violating it. Children were as illiterate as before the passage of the laws of 1893, Mrs. Kelley affirmed, and she also charged that many of those nominally in school were attending non-English parochial schools. "The educational status of the children found at work shows no improvement," her official report states with no uncertain emphasis. "From garment and cigar-shops, children are still taken into court as witnesses in factory cases who speak no English, some of them having lived several years in the state in dense foreign colonies; and going to school, if at all, where English is not taught." Mrs. Kelley also attacked the City Council for reducing the school appropriation and the Board of Education for its failure to make adequate school provision for its children.
Until there are schools for the children, and a compulsory education law that is enforced, the factory inspectors cannot keep all the children under fourteen years out of factories and workshops.
(82) While an effective factory law is the best possible supplement to a good compulsory education law, neither can take the place of the other; and the attempt to enable the factory inspectors to do the work of truant officers can never be successful . . . . . In manufacturing centers there is the same lack of school accommodations to which attention has been called in previous reports, as one great reason for the illiteracy prevailing among working children in this state. In Chicago, the City Council has taken a distinctly retrograde step in reducing the school appropriations by $2,000,000 for 1896-97, thus checking the building of school houses, and depriving thousands of working-class children of the opportunity for school life which primary schools are supposed to extend to all alike. That the working children are thus vitally affected, the report of the Chicago Board of Education for 1896 shows.
Unfortunately the school board had brought this rebuke down upon itself by complaining the year before that it found enough to do in making provision for the children who were willing to come to school without compulsion, and the implication was that the board felt that it might be excused from worrying about the children who did not wish to attend its schools. The following statement in the annual report of the board for the year 1894-95 regarding the compulsory education situation called forth much criticism:
The fifteen truant agents, appointed by the Board of Education to visit different sections of the city and to notify the parents of children who do not attend school, that the law requires them to do so, have done the best they could under the existing conditions. The law is ineffective, because no penalty can be enforced. Some good is accomplished by serving notices upon parent..,; that the children should attend school, but wherever parents are indifferent or deliberately keep their children from school, no effort has been made to enforce the law. Under the city statutes relating to vagrants, children who are found upon the streets could be arrested, and the parents could be reached by the police. Chicago fails to give this
(83) class of children the education and training which would redeem many, and bring them to better citizenship. The Board of Education very naturally finds much to do in caring for the two hundred thousand children who are enrolled and glad to come to school without compulsion.
It has been said that Mrs. Kelley never allowed the state to believe that anything more than " an initial measure " on behalf of its neglected children had been secured. As early as 1894, she had pointed out in one of her reports that, compared with the codes of protective legislation of the states of Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Rhode Island, the Illinois law was merely an initial measure intended to mitigate certain conspicuous evils. While prohibiting the employment of children under fourteen years of age, it does not, like the New York law, place a premium on the school attendance of such children by prohibiting their employment to the age of sixteen in case they fail to read and write simple English. While empowering the inspectors to demand health certificates for certain children, it provides no physicians to furnish the certificates, but leaves them to be furnished to all comers by any physician. While permitting thousands of children to go to work at fourteen years of age, it affords them no safeguards against falling down elevator shafts, burning up for want of fire escapes, being mangled in unguarded belting and shafting, Ling, or mutilated by uncovered saws and unprotected stamps. It provides for no notice to the inspectors of accidents occurring in factories, and empowers no one to require modern ventilation and sanitation where employes are poisoned by foul drains, bad air or hurtful fumes engendered in their work.
Viewed as an initial measure [Mrs. Kelley conceded, and it was her only concession], the Illinois law must be regarded as a promising beginning; but compared with the codes of the other states it must be admitted that it does not effectively guard the employes in factories in their life, limbs, health or intelligence; and is far from insuring the people of the state against an increasing burden of orphan children
(84) and of cripples, consumptives and other invalids, deprived of the power of self-support by preventable evils in the places in which they work.
The conditions so vividly described by Mrs. Kelley caused so much dissatisfaction that, in 1897, a new child labor law was enacted which was strengthened by a new compulsory education law. The old child labor law, which had applied only to factories, was now extended to "offices, stores, and mercantile establishments," and some ineffective but well-meant protective measures for children between the ages of fourteen and sixteen were added. The hours of work for such children were limited to ten in one day and sixty in one week, and they were prohibited from working at extra-hazardous occupations. The most important improvement relating to the better enforcement of the law was a provision that put the burden of proof on the employer in case of violation. The presence of a child under sixteen in any work-place was declared to be prima facie evidence of his employment.
Along with these substantial improvements in the child labor law went some unsubstantial additions to the compulsory education law. The new law, called "An act to promote attendance in schools and to prevent truancy" was still very weak. The period of compulsory attendance, a meager sixteen weeks of the school term, remained unchanged, but there was a slight improvement which made the period of consecutive attendance begin at a definite time, that is, with the opening of the school term for children under ten years of age, and on December 1 for those over ten. This provision, of course, made the enforcement of the school attendance period more practicable. The appointment of truant officers was made mandatory, as in the old law of 1889, instead of permissive as in 1893, but the much-desired provision for a parental school was not included in the statute. The improvements made were obviously too slight to be of any real value. In fact, nothing short of compulsory
(85) attendance during the entire school term, and a good parental school, could really take the children off the streets and place them in the schoolroom. Hope of any successful results from the new laws was short-lived. Renewed pressure for an adequate law was brought to bear on public opinion, on the Board of Education, and on the legislature, by the report of an educational commission that had been authorized by the City Council in December, 1897, appointed by Mayor Harrison in January, 1898, and which reported in 1899. This commission in dealing with the subject of compulsory attendance reported that the principle of compulsory school attendance had become well established, but that a more adequate law was needed in Illinois, and also recommended the "establishment of one or
(86) more parental schools for the forcible detention of persistently refractory pupils."
In the year 1899, the legislature finally passed the parental or truant school law, which provided that cities having a population of 100,000 or more must establish "one or more parental schools for the purpose of affording a place of confinement, discipline, instruction, and maintenance for children of compulsory school age who may be committed thereto." In accordance with the provisions of this law, children who would not go to school, that is, children who were truants or children who went to school but while there behaved so badly as to render themselves a nuisance and make their attendance worse than useless, could be committed either by the Circuit or County Court to the parental school for custody, discipline, and training. At the same session of the legislature the juvenile court law was passed and the newly established juvenile branches of the circuit courts were authorized to exercise such jurisdiction as was bestowed upon circuit or county courts in all matters pertaining to children of school age. It was thus provided that truant or unruly school children were to be committed to the newly established parental schools through the agency of the juvenile Court. It should be added that although the word "children" as used in the statutes should include both girls and boys, parental schools have been established for boys only.
The year 1903 saw the beginning of the end of the long struggle for an effective compulsory education law. Nearly fifty years before, education had been made free. More than twenty-five years later the "compulsory principle" had been accepted by the passage of a law entitled "An act to secure to all children the benefit of an elementary education"; but this law was really a poor, ineffective measure, requiring only twelve weeks of schooling a year and allowing any school board to excuse any child for any cause; moreover, it was found that the law, inadequate as it was, could not be enforced. In 1903 the "act to promote attendance of children in schools and to prevent truancy" provided that all children between seven and fourteen must attend some public or private school for the entire time during which the school attended was in session, and this could not be less than 110 days of actual teaching. Moreover, it allowed no exemption save for physical or mental incapacity. It made the appointment of truant officers mandatory, and the prosecution of indifferent and recalcitrant parents possible.
The two decades between the acts of 1883 and 1903 were influenced by a social reform movement which had educated public opinion to demand effective compulsory education for its future citizens. How far the law of 1903 has also proved inadequate will be shown in the later chapters of this volume. Amendments were adopted in 1907 and 1909 in order to bring children between fourteen and sixteen under the protection of the law, but these amendments have failed to protect the children over fourteen, as the earlier law failed to protect children under fourteen, because there is no institution, corresponding to the parental school, to which these older children can be committed. As the parental schools are provided only for children
(88) under fourteen and as "necessary and lawful employment" excuses children between fourteen and sixteen from school attendance, these children are not as yet effectively protected.
The legislature of 1903 not only made radical changes in the compulsory education law, but also revolutionized the child labor law, so that it provided both for a shorter working day and working week for children under sixteen and for the extension of its provisions to occupations not hitherto brought under regulation. It also provided that, before a child could lawfully be employed, he must obtain an age and school certificate, testifying both that he was of the required age and that he was able to read and write simple sentences.
By the provisions of these two laws, which were passed in 1903, compulsory school attendance was for the first time made possible. The old difficulty of ascertaining whether a child had attended school for the required period was done away with by extending the compulsory period to cover the entire school term. The old inducement to fraudulent evasion of the law by the false affidavits of parents that their children were of working age was ended by the abolition of the affidavit system and by the substitution of the new age and school certificates which should be issued by the school authorities as evidence of the child's "right to work."
After reviewing the history of these attempts at compulsory attendance legislation, we are inevitably brought to the question, How far is education really compulsory in Chicago or Illinois today ? Is the present law entirely adequate and satisfactory both in its provisions and in the methods adopted for its enforcement ? It will be the purpose of the chapters that follow to attempt to answer these questions.