Jailed for missing school: the problem with truancy laws

My new piece at Reason begins:

We’ve seen it happen again and again: libertarians are derided over some supposedly crazy or esoteric position, years pass, and eventually others start to see why our position made sense. It’s happened with asset forfeiture, with occupational licensure, with the Drug War, and soon, perhaps, with libertarians’ once-lonely critique of school truancy laws.

In his 1980 book Free To Choose, economist Milton Friedman argued that compulsory school attendance laws do more harm than good, a prescient view considering what’s come since: both Democratic and Republican lawmakers around the country, prodded by the education lobby, have toughened truancy laws with serious civil and even criminal penalties for both students and parents. Now the horror stories pile up: the mom arrested and shackled because her honor-roll son had a few unexcused sick days too many, the teenagers managing chaotic home lives who are threatened with juvenile detention for their pains, the mother who died in jail after being imprisoned for truancy fines. It’s been called carceral liberalism: we’re jailing you, your child, or both, but don’t worry because it’s for your own good. Not getting enough classroom time could really ruin a kid’s life.

My article also mentions that a bill to reform Texas’s super-punitive truancy laws has reached Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, following the reported success of an experiment in San Antonio and pressure from a Marshall Project report. Finally, truancy-law reform is looking to become an issue across the political spectrum — but libertarians were there first. (cross-posted from Cato at Liberty).


  • I’m pretty sure that the recent push on this is because of Federal and State funding being based on number of students times the number of days that they are in class. There is some leeway built into it, but after so many absences the amount of funding is reduced.

  • Truancy laws are fundamentally non-Constitutional, unjust, and illegal.

    Quite surprising how few Americans see that… but shocking how few lawyers comprehend what should be blatantly obvious.

    Compulsory school laws are a clear and severe ‘deprivation of liberty’ for all children. American government is expressly prohibited from depriving any person of their personal liberty without a specific judicial conviction of a specific crime, under due process of law.
    (Re: 5th Amendment, Bill of Rights & identical prohibition in state constitutions.)

    All children are condemned at birth to attend government schools (or government directed/approved substitutes) during the most formative years of their lives. And there is no appeal procedure. Details of this long incarceration are at the whim of government politicians and bureaucrats. 90% of Americans attend government schools.

    Due process does not exist in the very concept of compulsory education, nor its bludgeon of truancy laws/edicts. Objectively, it’s a huge national scandal in a supposed free society.

    • American government is expressly prohibited from depriving any person of their personal liberty without a specific judicial conviction of a specific crime, under due process of law.

      You greatly overestimate what due process requires. It doesn’t require a criminal conviction before loss of liberty – if you can’t make bail, you’re in jail before your trial, and even if you do make bail, it comes with conditions that are in direct conflict with liberty. Temporary restraining orders are often granted before cases can be finally determined on the merits. You can be compelled to sit on a jury. These are things that were understood to be true even back in the 1700’s.

      Compulsory education is slightly newer, being implemented from the mid-1800’s to the early 1900’s. But no court is going to find that it’s a due process violation to be forced to attend school, any more than a court is going to find compulsory jury duty to be involuntary servitude.

  • The question that needs to be asked? Why do these people still have jobs?

  • isn’t that the whole idea behind legal age(s)? humans are not mature enough to make some decision or do some act until they are “adults”?
    the government gets involved, for better or for worse, because some parents are not
    able to parent.

  • […] The bill signed by Gov. Greg Abbott does not legalize school non-attendance, but at least disengages truancy from criminal law sanctions. [Right on Crime] Earlier here. […]