5.6.1. The Midwest, 1965-Present: Autonomy in Education


Key cases: 

State v. Yoder – Wisconsin, 1971 (182 N.W.2d 539), affirmed, 406 U.S. 205 (1972); State v. Whisner – Ohio, 1976 (351 N.E.2d 750); Johnson v. Charles City Community Schools – Iowa, 1985 (368 N.W.2d 74); Davis v. Grover – Wisconsin, 1992 (480 N.W.2d 460)

  • Starting in the 1970s, the old ideal of public schools as common ground for teaching children of all backgrounds “American” values eroded rapidly.   The home schooling movement grew rapidly; courts began to favor parents’ interest over the schools’ interest in controlling children; and in the 1990s the school voucher movement, allowing states to allocate educational funding between public and private schools, gained its first foothold in the Midwest.  Midwestern courts and legislatures have encouraged this trend.
  • In Yoder, the Wisconsin supreme court had to balance Amish parents’ religious belief that children should leave school at 16 to work against tlaws requiring all children to attend school to age 18.  The court sided with the parents, thus favoring familial independence over the state’s interest in educating and assimilating all children.
  • Yoder led many states to adopt an “Amish exception” to compulsory school attendance laws, but several Midwestern courts applied the exception narrowly and maintained that the state had a broad right to apply public educational standards to private schools.  In Whisner, the Ohio supreme court warned that such restrictions could go too far, for example by attempting to directly regulate religious exercises in private schools, but in Charles City the Iowa supreme court, by a 4-3 vote, held that private schools would be exempted from state curriculum standards only in cases where those standards clearly interfered with religious freedom.
  • In 1990 Wisconsin became the first state to adopt a school voucher program when it allowed students in the troubled Milwaukee school system to apply for state aid in order to attend private schools.  A bitterly divided Wisconsin supreme court held that the program did not violate the state’s constitutional guarantee of a uniform system of public schools.  A majority of justices downplayed the importance of assimilation, while three dissenters defended it and warned that vouchers could be used as a wedge to undermine public education.  In 1995, Ohio adopted a similar system for the Cleveland schools which was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

 “The uniformity clause … does not require the legislature to ensure that all children in Wisconsin receive a free uniform basic education.   Rather, [it] requires the legislature to provide the opportunity for all children in Wisconsin to receive a free uniform basic education.” -Justice William Callow, in Davis

“The majority opinion … permits the legislature to subvert the unifying, democratizing purpose of public education by using public funds to substitute private education without the concomitant controls exerted over public education.” -Justice Shirley Abrahamson (dissenting), in Davis


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Amish horse and carriage, Shepshewana, Indiana (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)


March against school segregation, Chicago, 1966 (courtesy Library of Congress)

“When [an Amish] child reaches the age of judgment, he can choose for himself his religion, but prior to that time the state … ought not to enforce educational requirements which will directly influence that choice.” -Chief Justice E. Harold Hallows, in Yoder

“[The state’s right to regulate private schools] plainly extends to such matters as basic parameters for curriculum and teacher qualifications … [Private school children] will have to compete with well-educated children, will associate with them in a society very different from the simple, rural, and largely isolated one that lies ahead for Amish children.” -Justice David Harris, in Charles City