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Exemption and Court Cases on Compulsory Education

Education is compulsory for most children between the ages of roughly six and 17 (compulsory education laws are handled at the state level). While there are broad exemptions for homeschooling and private school, courts also have carved out some more narrowly defined exemptions to such laws. The following is an overview of exemptions defined by various courts.

See FindLaw's Education Options section to learn more. 

Exemptions Accepted by Some Courts

  • A threat to the health, safety, or welfare of a student if the parents can show the threat is imminent.
  • The child has reached the age of majority.
  • The child becomes mentally or physically disabled. However, this ground is now used less frequently because of special services for the disabled mandated by federal law.
  • The parent objects to classes because the content violates their religious beliefs or practices.
  • Either hazardous conditions are present between the child's home and his designated public school or the distance between the student's home and the school exceeds a distance provided by statute.

Exemptions Rejected by Some Courts

  • A parent's belief a given teacher is incompetent or otherwise not qualified to teach.
  • A parent's belief the school is doing a poor job of educating his or her children.
  • Objections to racial integration by the parents on religious grounds.

Early United States Supreme Court Challenges

Meyer v. Nebraska (1923)

This decision struck down a state law prohibiting any instructor, either in a public or a private school, from teaching in a language other than English. The Court took this action because of the arbitrary interference from state officials of the right of parents to provide education for their children as they saw fit. The statute was arbitrary because it bore no relationship to a legitimate state purpose and violated the part of the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that says no person may be deprived of liberty without due process of law. In this case, the right of the parents to employ a teacher to instruct their children in their native language fell under the right to determine how they were to be educated.

Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)

In this case, the Court said an Oregon law was unconstitutional which made it mandatory for parents to send their children to public school. As in Meyer, this law was unrelated to the legitimate state goal of educating children because it interfered with the fundamental right of parents to exercise control over how their children were to be taught. Forcing parents to have the educational options for their children limited to public schools infringed upon the above right and was an abuse of the state's police power to insure the health, safety, and morality of all localities in that jurisdiction. This standardization went against the sentiment of the Court often quoted in the part of their opinion that declares a child is not the creature of the state and that the responsibility for educating children should rest with the parents.

This decision is also important because it made clear that state governments had to permit private schools to operate. No challenge has since been made on this point.

Farrington v. Tokushige (1927)

The Hawaii legislature had passed a law strictly regulating hours, textbooks, and curriculum of schools that taught in the native language of the students. In striking down this law, the Court was indicating that this amount of regulation of private schools was unreasonable and that parents had the right to exercise control over how their children were educated without restrictions that were unrelated to any rational state goal.

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