Brad asked me for my thoughts on compulsory education. My first instinct is to say: there's no such thing. Allow me to expand. Education is the process of learning stuff. You might become educated in physics, or fist fighting, or fishing, or phlebotomy. What is true of any type of learning is that the student must engage voluntarily in learning. To compel someone is to force them to do something. Since learning is voluntary, compulsory education is a logical contradiction.
Does that I mean I think all those kids being forced to sit in classrooms every weekday are an illusion? No sir. What I'm saying is those kids who don't want to be there are learning by accident, not by intent, if they're learning at all. Certainly I didn't do much learning at school - most of it occurred on my own, after school. I was several grade levels ahead in reading, simply because I read numerous books that were a few (and then many) years ahead of my "age."
In some ways, then, compulsory schooling is like prison - it's just warehousing the youngsters for a time. If schooling were not compulsory, would parents really not see to educating their children? I find an answer in the affirmative to be nonsense. Yes, there are some neglectful parents who would not send their children to school or otherwise see to their education. But then concerns over education would be secondary to concerns over the children's welfare generally (adequate food, no abuse, etc.). And, anyway, those youngsters that are badly off can't learn anyway, without proper nutrition or a safe environment at home.
Without compulsory schooling, the ability to develop new ways of educating children would be unlocked. Here's an option: get 10 families together to hire one person to educate the children of the 10 families. On average, this would be 20 children. Let's say they compensated the educator at the top end of the national primary school educator pay scale: around $50,000. That's $5000/family for a year of dedicated attention. Sounds pretty good to me. And that's just off the top of my head.
Certainly some families would find it beneficial to home school their children. This would be my preference, if I had children. There's an enormous amount of resources out there to help parents educate their own young. And, I don't see why brick-and-mortar schools would not still be useful. There are certainly some who benefit from a structured environment.
So I've gone from denying that education can ever be compulsory to alternatives to the status quo in schooling. In a nutshell: to the extent parents have been able, they have seen to getting their children educated. We are rich enough as a people that now children needn't work at all so can focus on their education exclusively. I think that not working is a mistake, but that's another post for another day. So compulsion is useless nonsense. But I bet teachers unions would disagree with me.