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Do Children Have a Right to an Education?

At the center of debates about parental control and home-schooling is a nearly 50-year-old Supreme Court ruling about the Amish

Maggie Phillips
October 25, 2021
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
See all in Religious Literacy in America →︎
Sonia Pulido
Sonia Pulido

American families are increasingly pulling their children out of traditional public schools to meet what they consider their children’s most pressing educational, social, or emotional needs. Many owe a partial debt to Wisconsin v. Yoder, a 1972 Supreme Court decision that allowed Amish parents greater control over their children’s education on religious freedom grounds. As school choice gains in popularity (home-schooling rates in households with school-aged children nearly doubled between the spring and fall of 2020), some education and Amish advocates worry about Yoder’s impact on the rights of the children themselves.

With Yoder, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the traditional (popularly known as Old Order) Amish, who do not attend school past the eighth grade. Per Yoder, Amish families could avoid compulsory state education laws, instead educating their children in their own parochial private schools, following up with vocational training to equip them for (primarily agrarian) jobs within their communities. Often sensationalized or sentimentalized, individual Amish communities’ customs, mores, and beliefs vary, and resist popular narratives about either quaint customs, or of isolated communities of wild-eyed zealots.

Some of the people opposed to the Yoder decision and its impact are themselves Amish. Former traditional Amish church member Torah Bontrager founded the Amish Heritage Foundation. A nonprofit committed, among other things, to establishing an affirmative right to education in the U.S., an essential part of its mission includes overturning the precedent set by Yoder. The group asserts that the decision deprives children of a full education.

It is difficult to characterize the growing Amish population in the U.S. It is far from a monolith, numbering over 350,000 and spanning 31 states. “There’s all these variations of Amish,” said Bontrager, who experienced abuse at the hands of family members as a child, and who left her traditional Amish community as a teenager to pursue an education. According to her, communities’ practices can vary even within counties. She described the “Amish Disneyland” of northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—what most Americans think of as “Amish country”—as comparatively liberal, which she said is not representative of many traditional Amish. Bontrager contrasted it with what she described as the “super conservative” southern part of the county. As a result, there is a wide variance in the subjects, quality, and even type of schools that Amish children attend nationwide that may defy most Americans’ stereotypes of the religion. As of 2015, for example, public Mount Hope Elementary in Ohio had a 100% Amish population—as well as classroom Smartboards and a tablet for every six students.

In the Yoder decision, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Amish because, it reasoned, keeping their children out of school helped preserve their agrarian way of life, long-established in America as coming from a place of sincerely held faith. Part of the court’s decision in favor of the Amish defendants pointed to their community’s ability to demonstrate an adequate “alternative mode of continuing informal vocational education.” Whatever the truth of this statement in 1972, in 2021, the variation between Amish communities’ beliefs, practices, and circumstances means not all will be equally equipped to adequately prepare their young people for what are often increasingly diversified economic endeavors. As the Amish move away from agriculture to other fields that frequently necessitate a command of math and even science, it is worth questioning whether the decision still serves its intended purpose, which was to preserve Amish society by allowing their communities to limit the parameters of their children’s education so that, in the grandiose language of the majority opinion, they may maintain “their devotion to a life in harmony with nature and the soil.”

All Amish communities in the U.S. trace their roots to the 16th-century Anabaptists who led the Radical Reformation that took place in central and northern Europe as part of the wider Protestant Reformation. Anabaptists differed in some key areas from leaders like Martin Luther, who hewed more closely to Roman Catholicism in many ways. The Radical Reformers, as the moniker might suggest, wanted a cleaner break from existing rituals and beliefs. Anabaptists, whose name comes from an epithet meaning “baptized again,” were distinct for their belief in adult baptism, when a person was old enough to give full consent to joining the church.

The variation among Amish communities’ beliefs, practices, and circumstances means not all will be equally equipped to adequately prepare their young people for what are often increasingly diversified economic endeavors.

During the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptist communities throughout Europe raised the concern and suspicion of authorities due to their rejection of the widespread traditional practice of infant baptism, which served as a sort of ticket to enter the life of the church and therefore society at large. Anabaptists had other beliefs and conventions that put them at odds with the rest of society, including the rejection of military service, private property, and other secular governmental and societal structures.

Popular suspicion of the Anabaptists must have seemed vindicated during the 1535 Münster rebellion in northwestern Germany. The walled city was subject to a monthslong terror at the hands of a militant millenarian Anabaptist sect. Tales of starvation, polygamy, and wanton execution emerged before Catholics and Protestants temporarily teamed up to retake the city. The Münster siege tainted the popular view of Anabaptists throughout Europe (though most of their co-religionists were horrified by the events there). In reaction, Menno Simons, a Dutch former Catholic priest and Anabaptist, started a committed Anabaptist sect of pacifists that became the Mennonites. It was from the Mennonites that the followers of Jakob Amman departed in the 17th century to begin the Amish church. The Amish adherents’ preference for more extreme penitential practices like shunning created a theological difference that led to the splinter.

Still seeking greater freedom to live their countercultural way of life nearly 200 years after the events in Münster, Amish began immigrating to America in the first half of the 18th century. Although the future state of Pennsylvania was opened to settlement by Anabaptists, their radical nonconformity to societal norms and rules continued to foster mistrust in their new home. During the revolutionary period, with their loyalties in question, religious pacifists like the Amish and their Mennonite cousins were subjected to political, legal, and civic disenfranchisement for their conscientious objections to aiding the war effort.

The Amish way of life became even more starkly different from the rest of the young country as industry and technology progressed, thereby widening the cultural gap. Each Amish community, led by bishops, ministers, and deacons—who are chosen through a hybrid system that is part lottery, part election—considers the value of new technology to their particular community’s needs, as well as weighing the potential downsides to community cohesion.

In the mid-20th century, Amish communities came up against the world once again when states began to require the Amish to send their children to school past the eighth grade, and raised concerns about the Amish education system’s ability to meet state standards. Many Amish children had attended public schools when they were one-room school houses, but as the age of compulsory education rose and the school districts consolidated, switching to the current age-graded system, the Amish moved toward educating their children themselves and sticking to their practice of finishing school at age 14, or around the eighth grade, at which point they switched to on-the-job training alongside adults, usually doing farm work. 

In the 1960s, Amish parents were fined and arrested for refusing to send their children to school in violation of their principles, becoming a cause célèbre among religious liberty advocates. 

A Wisconsin case, which involved Amish parents who were fined for noncompliance with the state’s compulsory education law, reached the Supreme Court in 1971 in Wisconsin v. Yoder. Oral arguments dealt primarily with whether the state’s compelling interest to educate children past the eighth grade overrode the parents’ First Amendment religious freedoms. However, the rigor of the curriculum was also at issue. Expert witness for the defense Dr. John A. Hostetler asserted that “Amish children in the 8th grade achieved comparably to non-Amish children in the basic skills.” Hostetler, a Mennonite who was raised Amish, argued that Amish educating their own children only up to the eighth grade was essential to the preservation and promulgation of their religion.

In the 1960s, Amish parents were fined and arrested for refusing to send their children to school in violation of their principles, becoming a cause célèbre among religious liberty advocates.

Though the actual curriculum in Amish schoolhouses can vary among communities, Hostetler’s data about the substantial quality of Amish education seems to have been questionable, and it’s possible the instruction many Amish children receive is still less adequate today.

Bontrager said that it’s not uncommon for Amish one-room schoolhouses, which usually offer only a bare-bones, “three R’s” education, to use outdated textbooks like McGuffey readers, popular in the 19th century, or hand-me-downs from a nearby public school. Bontrager said numbers are hard to come by, but she estimated around 1% of traditional Amish attend public schools, although they are removed from class for anything their particular church community finds “objectionable,” such as the topic of evolution. Stacie Hunt, a non-Amish midwife who treats Amish women in Ethridge, Tennessee, said she would estimate the education level of the population she treats to be equivalent to a third-grade level.

When I visited rural Ethridge—a town of about 6,000, nearly a quarter of whom are Amish, according to the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce—on a cool, breezy, cloudless day in early fall, a horse-drawn wagon tour of the area was departing with a group of non-Amish home-schoolers from Nashville, about 75 miles away. The non-Amish wagon driver, Sam, has been a tour guide with the Amish Welcome Center for 14 years, and spoke authoritatively about the Amish in Etheridge. He displayed an easy familiarity, both with the reins in his hand and with nearly every Amish family at whose farm stands he stopped for his passengers. Members of the tour group, who belonged to an online service that organizes field trips for Nashville homeschoolers, disembarked to make purchases of homemade baked goods and preserves, as well as baskets, and even furniture. It was the last day of school for six weeks, Sam said, as the children would be needed to harvest and process sorghum.

As the wagon tour went past the first Amish schoolhouse in Ethridge, built in 1944, a mixed-age group of Amish children played a game of red rover while a smiling older woman looked on. Some adults in the wagon enthusiastically cheered, “red rover!” at the children, who looked back with shy, quizzical smiles. Amish children, Sam said, do not learn English until the age of 8, speaking “Pennsylvania Dutch” German with each other. (Bontrager said 8 is comparatively late, in her experience.) As the wagon moved past the schoolhouse, the adult passengers’ conversation shifted to the sad state of outdoor games in most schools, where, they say, childhood favorites like tag and dodgeball are now verboten because they are too dangerous.

Between stops at the various rustic houses’ farm stands, the adults on the home-school field trip swapped information about co-ops and tutorials, and assured each other of the benefits of escaping the traditional classroom. When asked if they had seen an increase in their home-school circles since the pandemic, two mothers gave an emphatic yes.

“That’s why I’m doing it,” said Angela, a mom on the field trip whose son attended a private school last year. She cited the inconsistency of that school due to frequent quarantining, and the fact that her son was the only one wearing a mask. Angela pulled her son out of school just two weeks into this academic year to provide him with more consistency, as well as to protect a vulnerable family member living with them at home.

The home-school families taking the tour weren’t wearing their religious affiliation quite as noticeably as the Amish they were visiting—in traditional straw hats, bonnets, and long skirts—but the number of T-shirts with Bible verses, church affiliations, and religious slogans would seem to indicate quite a few of them were practicing Christians.

Religion is what lies at the heart of the Supreme Court’s decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder, since it was the parents’ right to freedom of religion that made the exemption from compulsory schooling possible. However, religion per se is not always a direct justification for a given Amish practice. “If you ask them why they do what they do,” said Sam in response to field trip attendees’ questions about the reasons behind the color of certain types of houses, “most of them can’t give you no good answer.” He said they will usually cite their grandparents’ way of doing things. This rationale is unsatisfying to those who would like to look to the Amish as an example of simple, harmonious order. Past Amish Heritage Foundation collaborators have argued that decisions by Amish leadership aren’t always based on rational calculation or intended to serve some grand design or function, but rather, a reactionary impulse to thwart schism or heresy.

Sam’s tour offered the home-school families an affectionate, if clear-eyed view of the daily life of the Amish in his community. It’s a perspective often absent from American pop culture’s portrayal, which tends to offer gritty reality shows about escaped Amish teens, irreverent parodies, or chaste romance novels about Amish courtship.

Bontrager worries that both religious freedom advocates and home-schoolers further ghettoize the Amish in a way that harms the vulnerable, by fetishizing what they perceive to be the simple, religiously centered life of the Amish, and standing by the Yoder decision. Even as the Amish increasingly leave agriculture behind to pursue opening and running businesses in things like milling, contracting, consigning goods, and more, a subpar education—administered in some cases by teenage girls not much older than the students—could actually harm the success of these endeavors.

Bontrager worries that both religious freedom advocates and home-schoolers further ghettoize the Amish in a way that harms the vulnerable, by fetishizing what they perceive to be the simple, religiously centered life of the Amish.

An iconic 1965 black-and-white photo of Amish children running from state-mandated busing took place in Buchanan County, Iowa, where Bontrager’s Amish family lived (family lore says one of the running children is her uncle). She said contemporary media coverage missed the contention within the Buchanan County Amish community about educating their own, her grandfather being one of those who opposed Amish teachers. “He did not feel that his children and any children would be educated adequately,” she said, which surprised her because “that side of the family was extremely conservative.” Her mother, she said, is among the last generation of the average Amish population that has a (limited) public school education.

“Since Yoder, the quality of Amish education has steadily deteriorated, not improved,” said Bontrager. “Back then, the kids were still recipients of generally, on average, the public school curriculum. They had the same textbooks that were current with the times, and the Amish teachers had been recipients of a public school education from non-Amish teachers—what education they did get. So naturally, their ability to turn around and teach was at a higher level than now, 50 years later, Amish girls, mostly girls, who are Amish teachers—it’s just degraded.”

For its part, when it comes to preserving the character of Amish life and culture, the Amish Heritage Foundation treads a conscious middle path. Despite her departure from the Amish church and her dark personal history with it, Bontrager’s goal with her nonprofit isn’t to bring down the institution or to attack an entire religion: “It’s about recognizing there’s a difference between our religion and culture, and for us to be proud of the good parts of our culture. We don’t need to throw that out.”

While she believes there are things the religion needs to resolve to improve Amish culture—particularly as they relate to women, their rights as citizens and humans, as well as within the Amish church’s leadership structure—Bontrager also thinks there are positive cultural aspects worth preserving and celebrating. “The idea,” she said, is “that we can be culturally Amish and not religiously Amish.”

A secular Amish identity complicates gatekeeping efforts by academics and by Amish communities themselves to define who is and isn’t Amish.

“From my own personal view, I’ve always valued the good parts of the culture, like being bilingual, knowing a language fluently other than English,” she said. “Most Amish who exit the religion throw everything away. And that’s understandable, because they generally have bad experiences, so they don’t recognize that anything was good about it. That also points to the fact that we’re undereducated. We’re not supposed to question anything. There’s no critical thinking. That kind of stuff is considered an expression of rebellion against the church.”

“I’m still Amish, you cannot take my heritage away from me,” said Bontrager. She believes that differentiating between Amish religious faith and cultural practices protects the Amish from what she views as their status as “a guinea pig for the religious right.” A secular Amish identity complicates gatekeeping efforts by academics and by Amish communities themselves to define who is and isn’t Amish, she said, making it harder in turn for what she calls the more “extreme” spectrum of the religious right to use the Amish to establish precedents and exemptions for themselves.

“I know that there are some that would like to do different things,” said Stacie Hunt about the Amish women she knows. “A lot of them leave.”

Hunt said young people in Ethridge who leave the Amish church usually have access to outside networks that include individuals who have already left, and who help them get what they need to establish themselves, a scenario that is also true elsewhere. Speaking specifically of Amish women who leave, Hunt said, “I feel like for most of them, they don’t [leave]. [Being Amish is] all they know and that’s all they want to be.” On the other hand, “They don’t get out much at all,” said Hunt. “And some of them have never even been to Walmart.”

The Supreme Court has established parental rights, but it has also said there is no constitutional right to education. “It was all about the parents, not about the children,” Bontrager said of Yoder. “As the world advances, the more new things take place, things like climate change and the pandemic, the education gap, the knowledge gap has widened and widened and widened astronomically since Yoder.”

William Bentley Ball, who represented the Amish defendants in the Supreme Court case, went on to defend other denominations in subsequent religious liberty cases. Just a few years after Yoder, Ball defended a fundamentalist Christian school that wanted an exemption from Ohio’s Board of Education minimum standards on free exercise grounds. He called as witness professor Donald Erickson, who had also testified on behalf of the Amish defendants in Yoder. Historian Shawn Peters, author of The Yoder Case. Religious Freedom, Education, and Parental Rights, wrote in his book that home-schooling advocates “have treasured the Yoder precedent as well.”

The long-simmering school choice debate in the U.S. has boiled over as parents object not only to prolonged pandemic school closures, but to the content of state curricula, as well. Among those who object to parents removing their children from public school to pursue alternatives, concerns are two pronged: the challenges of regulation and accountability with regard to quality, and protecting the rights of children. Especially in light of the increased risk of child abuse and neglect that has arisen from prolonged lockdowns, child welfare advocates like Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet are concerned about the underregulation of home-schooling in particular. Meanwhile, prominent U.S. political candidates are stoking parental anxiety in some quarters by insisting that parents should not “be telling schools what they should teach.”

A neat resolution continues to elude us because of the paradoxes inherent in a multitiered federal system that places national historical importance on the education of its citizens, even as it maintains that this education cannot and may not be the sole purview of the state.

Yoder got something correct,” said Michael Helfand, Pepperdine professor of law and expert on religious liberty and law, “about the existence of a [parental] right. There are some real puzzles, though, as to how states ought to build basic requirements with respect to education, in order to ensure that in fulfillment of that right, you’re not ending up in a situation where kids end up either not getting the education they need, or ending up in a place where they’re not protected.”

Governmental mechanisms that exist at various levels to protect children are not subordinated to parents’ religious rights, according to Lori Windham, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. She doesn’t see a one-size-fits-all resolution for Yoder’s inherent tensions. “Religious communities are diverse,” Windham said. “You’re not going to have an easy solution. It’s going to be a more careful look at what are the interests in this case, what are the risks in this case, and how do you strike that balance.”

In a 2015 article, anthropologist Karen Johnson-Weiner quotes the Regulations and Guidelines for Amish Parochial Schools of Indiana, which expresses a watchful gratitude for a continued lack of government interference in its schools. Noting the tolerance that they enjoy from local officials, the guidelines’ writers also state that Amish schools cannot take for granted the courts always ruling in their favor. Accordingly, they must “accept our responsibilities to the fullest, not only because of a concern for government intervention, but also to the honor and glory of God and to benefit the next generation.” In this spirit, Johnson-Weiner describes how (often more liberal) Amish communities in the state have taken steps to mitigate the risk of further court cases by administering standardized testing to their students. Some are even considering adding more grades to their schools.

Yoder is unlikely to fade in relevance as the post-COVID-19 education landscape continues to take shape. This past summer, California’s 9th Circuit Court decided in favor of students enrolled at private schools, and their right to attend school in-person rather than online. Citing Yoder in part, they pointed to precedent establishing parental rights to control their children’s education, and reiterated the Supreme Court’s refusal to recognize a right to public education.

In the eternal recurrence of America’s historical dispute over the role of private and public education in American civic life, nothing is plain or simple. If Yoder ignored the contradictions and complexity of Amish life in 1972, the ensuing decades have not diminished them.

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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