State Social Regulation, Child Welfare, and the Compulsory School in the Progressive Era

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 3:10 PM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Tracy L. Steffes, Brown University
Historians have explored the expansion of state authority over delinquent, abused, and dependent children in the Progressive Era through new interventions and child-saving efforts, including juvenile courts, orphanages and institutions, child labor restriction, and new laws about custody and abuse among others.  While scholars have thus examined the expanding role of the state as parent over children whose own parental authority was weak or suspect, they have paid little attention to how state authority expanded over all children through the institution of the compulsory school.  In the early twentieth century, every state in the nation passed its first compulsory attendance law or strengthened an existing one, and localities developed new techniques and commitments to enforce the laws.  In the process, local school officials were drawn in new ways into private family decisions about children’s education, health, labor, and welfare as they worked to monitor and discipline daily attendance of children at school.  This paper uses court cases, newspapers, local and state school reports, and professional education journals and monographs to analyze the compulsory school as an underappreciated site of social regulation and governance.  It argues that the compulsory school was a place where public authority was extended over children in new ways, through indirect new policies and surveillance as well as efforts to shape norms and values around attendance.  It also set standards for children outside of the public school and served as an avenue for regulation of alternatives.  Consequently, the development of the compulsory school did not simply police those children brought into the school by force, but expanded state authority over all children in new and subtle ways.