Welcome to FindLaw's Education Options section. While school enrollment is mandatory for most children of a certain age range (governed by state laws), there are options to the standard neighborhood public school. For instance, parents have the option of sending their child to a private school, a religious school, or even keep them home for private instruction. In any event, states generally require students to receive an education comparable to what they would receive at a public school. As with most laws, state compulsory education requirements have a few exceptions.
Compulsory Education: Overview
School wasn't always required in the United States, but the concept of compulsory education dates back to the Aztecs (in modern-day Mexico) in the 15th century. Massachusetts became the first state to enact a compulsory education law in 1852, although it had enacted a similar law in the mid- 17th century while still a British colony. But this would spread to other states in the early 20th century, primarily to help immigrant children assimilate to the New World. It also was seen as a way to discourage employers from exploiting child labor.
All U.S. states currently require children of a certain age to attend school, typically beginning at about age six. But state and federal law provides exceptions. State laws allow parents to home school their children as long as they meet the same standards required of established schools, and also allow for work release programs. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that Amish children were exempt past the eight grade.
U.S. parents were granted the right to provide schooling for their children at home through a pair of Supreme Court cases in the 1920s. States often require parents to submit the planned curriculum, report on their child's progress, provide equivalent hours of instruction, and take certain standardized tests. But often there is confusion over what constitutes an "equivalent" education. Some states give parents of home schooled children much more latitude to choose their child's curriculum.
But home school regulation is generally done at the state level. Some states require the parent-teacher to prove his or her qualifications as a teacher, typically through state certification. Also, state courts generally have ruled on the side of state regulators when such laws have been challenged on religious freedom grounds, arguing that the interest in an educated populace outweighs any real or perceived burden on religious freedom.
Private and Religious Schools
Other options to public school include private and religious institutions, which typically require the parents to pay a tuition. Since they do not receive federal government funding, they do not have to follow the same regulations as public schools. For instance, a Catholic school may start each morning with a prayer and can tailor its curriculum to its religious beliefs. Likewise, private schools may choose to focus instruction around the arts instead of being subjected to a state-mandated science and technology emphasis.
Some parents may choose to send particularly gifted children to high-achieving private schools, for instance, in order to make sure their child is fully engaged and challenged. Or perhaps their child learns better at a Montessori school. Whatever their reasons, parents have choices beyond the public school system.
Additional information about education options and the law can be found below.