Amish and Compulsory Education

School has been an issue which the Amish have come into conflict not with each other but with state and local governments.

In Elmer Schwieder and Dorothy Schwieder’s book A Peculiar People: Iowa’s Old Order Amish, the Schwieders document the conflicts between state officials and Amish families over the compulsory education issue. The 1960’s began a series of fines, jail terms, and court cases. In Iowa’s Buchanan County the school superintendent, J. J. Jorgensen, filed complaints against the Amish school leaders for sending their children to unapproved schools.

After a series of fines and the October 28, 1963 judgment of District Judge George Heath that the Amish are not exempt from such school requirements, the conflict rose to a rapid climax. It was the fall of 1965 when the Amish defendants refused to pay the $24 fines and it became obvious the soon Amish land would have to be confiscated and sold which would eventually ruin the area economy.

Finally, on November 18, County Attorney Harlan Lemon told the Amish fathers that the children would be bused to a school in nearby Hazleton. Because of the Amish rejection of violent behavior they expected no problems.(104-107)

The nineteenth proved different than what they expected. When the school bus arrived in the community either the children were not at home or fathers wouldn’t allow the children to get on the bus. Finally the state school officials went to the Amish school house and found the teacher a few mothers and many children gathered for the day’s classes. After the truant officer spoke to them and assured them that they would be welcomed at the Hazleton school, he asked them to quietly get on the bus. While the students filed out of the building a teacher or one of the mothers shouted out in German, “Run!” Immediately the children crossed the fence behind the school and dispersed into the corn stalks and the nearby woods. Due to the emotional reaction the officials retreated. Although later that afternoon they returned and bused twenty-eight students to school, having no difficulties without the presence of their parents.

In 1966 a partial agreement was finally reached. The Amish leased the school to the government and agreed to hire certified teachers which they could select. With the donations of private organizations these teachers and schools were supported. Eventually the 1967 Iowa Legislature approved exemption of Amish students from mandatory schooling as long as the students were able to pass state tests. (107-111)