The Great Equalizer? A Five State Study of Compulsory School Attendance Age Policy and Administration

Lia C. Howard, University of Pennsylvania


Federalism in America remains a vital force in shaping public policy formation and public policy implementation. With respect to education laws and their administration, nobody doubts that "federalism matters." Few studies, however, have examined just how federalism matters to the policy process as it relates to Compulsory School Attendance Age (CSAA) policies. The first wave of state CSAA policies was enacted over a hundred years ago. The present work offers an in-depth examination of how CSAA policies arose, persisted, and changed in five states that, together, approximate the persistent inter-state diversity in state CSAA laws and administration: Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, and Texas. The inter-state differences in the CSAA policy process, as well as changes in CSAA law and administration over time, are found to be both large and largely in keeping with ideas proffered by certain leading scholars (most notably, Daniel Elazar) regarding the existence and persistence of distinctive, federalism-related American political subcultures. In some states, for example, the CSAA policy process began mainly as a reaction by state leaders to reactionary concerns about racial minorities (in particular African Americans); in other states, the policies were motivated by a far more benevolent belief that, properly standardized and delivered to all children until at least a given age, CSAA laws could help make education the ultimate engine for socioeconomic equality (what Horace Mann called "the great equalizer"). At the same time, however, certain universal influences on the development of CSAA policies are also unearthed and explored; for example, CSAA policy discourse and administrative innovation, it seems, has increased in periods when immigration policy is high on the national policy agenda. Finally, the present work underscores the American Political Development (APD) field's premise that searching for generalizations about political institutions or patterns in the policy process requires searching deeply into the relevant history, including into the ideas and actions of often understudied leaders and thinkers.