Torah Bontrager was born and raised traditional Amish and escaped at age 15. In 2018, she founded The Amish Heritage Foundation, which is a nonprofit committed to empowering Amish women and children through education past the 8th grade and fostering public awareness about the crises hidden in Amish society. Torah graduated from Columbia University in NYC and is the author of the memoir Amish Girl in Manhattan. Her story and work have been featured on Wisconsin Public Radio,, USA Today, and The Federalist, among other outlets.

Written on December 21, 2023 By Torah Bontrager, Founder and Executive Director of The Amish Heritage Foundation

I was born and raised Amish in the Midwest, descending from ancestors who have been in this country for over 300 years, hardly anyone new to American democracy. Yet at 15 years old, I was forced to escape in the middle of the night just for a chance to go to school past the 8th grade. Had I waited until I was 18, I would have been prevented or discouraged from enrolling in high school and advised or required to attend an alternative program for juvenile delinquents or, at best, adult education.

This month, December, marked the 52nd anniversary of a one-hour oral hearing that led to the pivotal, but still little-known, U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) case Wisconsin v. Yoder, which explicitly restricts the right of some American citizens to become educated past elementary school. Yoder’s negative consequences affect insular- and fundamentalist-raised individuals from not only the Amish population but also from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Mennonite, evangelical/born-again, and home-schooled populations. Like I was, many individuals from these groups are forced to leave under cover of darkness — as minors or adults — just for the chance to attend high school and college.

Yoder clearly violates children’s rights and holds back civic participation vital for U.S. democracy. But it remains law, its shadow long. As long as Yoder remains standing, clergy of any religion can decree that the children may not become literate. Or that the girls may no longer attend school, no different from the Taliban in Afghanistan and restrictions on women in Iran. That would be perfectly legal, even if the state in which the clergy, or religious parent, is based spells out a right to education in its constitution.

The Amish Heritage Foundation is a nonprofit committed to empowering Amish women and children through education past the 8th grade. Part of our mission is to advocate for the rights of children in all areas. This year, we worked with CHILD USA to begin establishing constitutional rights to education across all 50 states. In 2024 and beyond, we aim to enact state constitutional amendments where absent and strengthen language where present. We firmly believe education is a constitutional right intertwined with equal citizenship, economic mobility, and democratic vitality. But until that right is explicit at the federal level, our democracy and the futures of our children hang in the balance.

The Landscape of State Education Rights

Across the United States, not every state explicitly guarantees the right to education. According to CHILD USA’s research as of July 2023, 15 states (e.g., Colorado, Iowa, and Michigan) do not include education rights in their constitution. Only six states (e.g., New York, Ohio, and Florida) include clear, unambiguous language affirming that right. The rest — which are in the majority — hover between a clear yes and a clear no. Some (e.g., California, Indiana, and Minnesota) are closer to a yes, while others (e.g., Kansas, Vermont, and Wisconsin) are closer to a no. What surprised me most about these findings was that the strength or weakness of education rights did not correlate with a state’s political, socioeconomic, or religious leanings, at least not as with today’s trends.

The Federal Stance on Education Rights and Wisconsin v. Yoder

In the eyes of the federal courts, no citizen has the right to any education — not even to learn how to read, write, or speak English. Today the average Amish adult’s literacy level is between the 3rd and 5th grade. That level has steadily deteriorated since the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision, which says in effect that children of practicing Amish don’t have a right to any education and future other than one inside the Amish Church. The ruling affirms the adults’ right to not let the children learn any subject that the Amish clergy disapproved of (e.g., science, technology, engineering, math beyond arithmetic, civics, law, politics, sex education, philosophy, and the arts).

 In a nutshell, SCOTUS decided that a religious parent’s interests in the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment outweighed a democracy’s interests in requiring that its children attend school until a state’s minimum compulsory age, 16 for Wisconsin. Further, Justice Warren Burger claimed that considering the children’s rights (which included their right to the free exercise of religion) in this case was irrelevant and unnecessary. Now Wisconsin v. Yoder is a precedent, allowing any religious parent/guardian — not only Amish — to legally prevent their child from attending school, including homeschool, or learning anything at all. In case you were wondering why a federal right is necessary, if the right already exists within a state, that is why.

2024 Initiatives

By advocating for clearer language in state constitutions, The Amish Heritage Foundation and CHILD USA seek to establish a robust foundation for the right to education, ensuring its interpretation is unwavering across different judicial levels. Our initial goal is to strengthen the language in states with constitutions that acknowledge the right to education. This involves addressing cases where the constitution contains non-rights-based language, but the state’s Supreme Court or a lower court interprets education as a right. Simultaneously, we aim to tackle the longer-term goal of adding the right to education in states lacking explicit constitutional provisions.

Ultimately, we hope to establish and codify an explicit right to education at the federal level in order to protect every child’s right to learn and participate in civic responsibility and the democratic process. As we collectively embark on this journey, it is essential to recognize that the right to education is not just a legal principle but a fundamental cornerstone of a thriving and equitable society, one that affects children in particular, upon whom our future as a democracy depends.