A History of Homeschooling in Iowa

School attendance at “some public, private, or parochial school” became compulsory in Iowa in 1902 (Chapter 14-A, Section 2823-a) for children ages 7 to 14. This law had subject requirements (reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, grammar, geography, physiology, and US history) and hours of instruction requirements. It provided exemptions from compulsory attendance for disabled children, children who lived too far from a school, and children who received “equivalent instruction by a competent teacher elsewhere than school.”

The compulsory attendance law was amended in 1919 (Chapter 31, Section 2663) to increase the age range to 7 to 16 and double the hours of instruction. It also provided further exceptions for working children over age 14, for children who had “educational qualifications equal to those of pupils who have completed the eighth grade,” and for children who were “attending religious service or receiving religious instructions.” In 1953, during a full restructuring of the Department of Education, the words “competent teacher elsewhere than at school” were replaced with the words “certificated [sic] teacher elsewhere” (55GA, Chapter 114, Section 41). This amendment was to cause the majority of the conflict over homeschooling in Iowa.

By 1961, “Iowa required the teachers in private schools to be certified and trained at the college level, and the state also prescribed required curricula for private schools, including religious schools.” These requirements were objectionable to the Amish community in Iowa, and “charges were brought against the parents of the Amish children who refused to attend the public schools.” On November 22, 1965, the Des Moines Register reported that school authorities forcibly carried Amish school children away from their community to take them to public school. As a result of the public outcry around this incident, Iowa governor Harold E. Hughes called a moratorium on prosecutions and tried to reach a compromise with the Amish. The matter was apparently resolved in 1967 when the Iowa legislature passed SF 785, which established an exemption from compulsory school attendance for members of religious denominations which profess “principles or tenents [sic] that differ substantially from the objectives, goals, and philosophy of education embodied” in the previous standards. Nonetheless, many Amish Iowans immigrated to Wisconsin as a result of this conflict.

The homeschooling movement began in the midst of this uneasy legal climate. In 1977, two families of unschoolers were refused permission to homeschool by both local and state school boards on the basis of their programs not being “equivalent” to public schooling. One of these homeschooling mothers argued that state laws allowed for private instruction (Title XII, Sections 299.1 and 299.4) and that she was a state-certified teacher as well as being an education specialist. When the local board ruled against her and obtained a warrant under the truancy statute, she left the state. The matter was resolved when she enrolled her daughter in an Iowa private school.

In 1978, homeschooling parents Linda and Bob Sessions were tried in Magistrate Court for failing to obtain equivalent instruction for their homeschooled 7-year-old. In their defense, they argued that they were included under the religious exemption, even though they were not religious. They were found guilty of truancy under Section 299.1 of the Iowa code. On appeal, the District Court ruled that the state had failed to make its case that the Sessions’ homeschooling program was not equivalent to the instruction provided by a certified teacher. As a result of this case, later prosecutions of homeschooling parents did not use this argument. The Sessionses appeared on the Phil Donahue show in 1979 to describe their struggle.

By 1980, approximately 600 to 800 children were being homeschooled in Iowa. Secular homeschoolers in the state organized under O!KIDS (Organization to Keep Iowa Deschoolers Strong, est. 1983) and its eponymous newsletter, run by Barb Tezlaff. The Iowa Home Educators Association (IHEA, est. c. 1985) was another early homeschooling group. Meanwhile, homeschoolers struggled with the requirement that they use only certified teachers to teach their children. Homeschooling parents Ronnie and Nancy Shuler were prosecuted for truancy; they were acquitted in 1983. Rev. T.N. Taylor and his wife Sharon—who ran an unaccredited church school where they taught three children, two of which were theirs—were convicted in 1984 of teaching without a state certification; both served jail time in 1987. In 1985, the Department of Public Instruction attempted to solve the problem by specifying a number of hours that homeschooled children were required to be instructed by a certified teacher; however, each district set its own policy. The same year, homeschoolers Karen and Greg Trucke, who employed a certified teacher about four hours a week, were charged with not using a certified teacher for all instruction. The Truckes were found guilty in magistrate court and in district court, but HSLDA attorney Michael Farris headed the appeals process and the charges were dropped in 1987. HSLDA recommended that its member families use a certified teacher for 120 days per school year to avoid prosecution.

Following this move by the Department of Public Instruction, Iowa governor Terry Branstad appointed a 1985 commission to investigate the teaching certification requirement. On November 25, the commission returned a recommendation that a moratorium be placed on prosecutions for five years, after which time the certification requirement would be dropped provided that homeschooled children were still progressing. The commission also recommended requiring only a high school diploma for homeschooling parents.

When the 1986 legislative session began, homeschoolers rallied to support legislation that would end the certification requirement. Senator Taylor introduced an amendment to the Senate Education Committee bill which would change the teacher certification requirement in keeping with the commission’s suggestions. When the bill failed by four votes, three state groups (presumably including O!KIDS and IHEA) combined resources to raise $10,000 to pay a lobbyist to support their interests in the next legislative session. Meanwhile, prosecutions continued: the Paulsrud family was charged in 1986 with using a certified teacher only for four hours a week; the charges were dropped. The Giesekes, defended by HSLDA attorney Michael Smith, were convicted in 1987 of violating the compulsory attendance law. Their conviction was overturned on appeal by the district court in 1988.

In 1987, the legal counsel for the Department of Public Instruction was Kathy L. Collins, a Des Moines lawyer. Collins argued that one of the state’s interests in having children attend school with a certified teacher was the potential for child abuse if children were never seen by mandatory reporters. “Any law that would allow Christians to teach their children without oversight or interference from the state would also allow parents with less worthy motives to lock their children in a closet, use them to babysit for younger siblings, or have them work twelve hours a day in the family hardware store,” Collins argued. “Certified teachers are state-mandated child-abuse reporters. When children are allowed to be kept at home, there may be no outside contact, no help for the abused child.”

Attempts by homeschoolers to remove the teacher certification requirement were halted again in 1988 when the proposed bill, which had been approved by the state house majority and minority leaders, failed to make it out of the house education committee. Instead, a stopgap measure was passed: parents could provide a notification (which included an outline of a course of study) that they were homeschooling to their school district by September 1, 1988 and prosecutions for violating the compulsory attendance statute would be deferred until after July 1, 1989. Further, parents who violated the statute would be charged with a misdemeanor and sentenced to community service rather than fines or imprisonment (GA 72, Session 2, HF 650, Chapter 1259, 1988). This bill effectively ended the legal difficulties experienced by homeschooling families. Finally, an interim study committee was formed to report to the legislature in 1989 and propose a new bill to end the teacher certification requirement. The annual notification requirement continued in the fall of 1989.

Sarah Leslie, a fundamentalist second-generation homeschooling mother and activist, reported attending a meeting of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council in early 1989 where Dr. Warren Montgomery, an administrator from the Sioux City school district, gave several examples of abusive homeschooling families in his district and declared his hope that a bill he had helped author, SF 149, would help put an end to such occurrences.

In mid-April 1989, the Iowa House passed SF 149, with alterations which would permit homeschooling under the supervision of a certified teacher, though it would not permit private church schools to hire unlicensed teachers. While the IHEA viewed the bill with “cautious optimism”, it was vigorously opposed by fundamentalist homeschoolers due to its provision that violation of the truancy statute (by refusing to homeschool under a certified teacher) would invoke the Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) protocol and the involvement of child protective services. Paul Zylstra was a fundamentalist homeschooling father and founder of Iowans for Christian Education (ICE) who had fled first Iowa and then Nebraska to escape homeschooling regulations (and who was later accused in his divorce proceedings of requiring his wife to homeschool their children in order to conceal their abuse). Zylstra used his connections in the Dutch Reformed church to convince Senator William Dieleman from Pella to stall the vote on SF 149 until the 1990 legislative session. In the meantime, IHEA and HSLDA attempted (unsuccessfully) to have the teaching certification requirement overturned on constitutional grounds.

In May 1989, the verdict of the State v. Bear case further stoked the fears of fundamentalist homeschoolers. Barry Bear was a mildly learning-disabled child who had been homeschooled for one year and failed to make academic progress. He was assigned to take special education classes in school, but his parents objected. Despite the fact that Barry’s mother claimed he was afflicted with numerous illnesses, the Bears failed for three consecutive years to obtain a health exemption from compulsory school attendance for him. During these three years Barry essentially did not attend school, and his mother made only haphazard attempts to teach him at home. In 1989 the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Barry was a Child in Need of Assistance, although they recommended that his parents retain custody as long as they agreed to send Barry to school. (Barry was removed from his parents’ custody four years later after they failed to comply.)

Fundamentalist homeschoolers believed this case set a dangerous legal precedent for the removal of homeschooled children by child protective services and were also concerned about HF 690, a bill which would expand the grounds for declaring a Child In Need of Assistance. Zylstra and Leslie, along with a number of other homeschooling families, met in Easton Baptist Church in June to discuss the matter. Despite the assurances of HSLDA lawyer Michael Smith, who was present at the meeting, that it was unlikely that the Bear case would ever be used against homeschoolers, Iowa’s fundamentalist homeschoolers remained deeply uneasy.

After the moratorium on prosecutions expired in July 1989, Director of Education William L. Lepley urged the state Board of Education not to prosecute compliant homeschooling families until a bill had been passed to clarify the issues. Instead, the state sought out non-compliant homeschoolers. For instance:

  • In August 1989, Rev. Taylor—who taught his own children in an unaccredited private school rather than under the “private instruction” statute—declared his intent not to comply with the law requiring certified teachers for church schools. This prompted Henry County Attorney Mike Riepe to publicly state his intention to prosecute Taylor under CINA and remove his children into foster care. Zylstra, Leslie, and other fundamentalists organized an impromptu ‘underground railroad’ to spirit the Taylor children, and any other homeschoolers who were investigated by child protective services, out of the state.
  • In April 1990, fundamentalist homeschooling parents Aaron and Theresa Rivera were found guilty of a misdemeanor for failing to turn in their annual notification to their school district in fall of 1989. The Riveras argued that they should not have to provide an outline of their course of study because it placed the State instead of God in charge of their children’s education. Theresa and the children left the state and homeschoolers showed up in force at the Linn County Court House to protest the prosecutions. The Riveras were sentenced to community service.

When the legislative session resumed in January 1990, SF 149 was immediately passed by the Senate and then went to a conference committee. There it was amended according to the results of a November 1989 state Board of Education meeting where a modification to the compulsory attendance statute had been suggested in addition to the bill’s focus on truancy. The revised bill provided for two different types of homeschooling: 1) competent private instruction by a certified teacher; and 2) competent private instruction by a noncertified parent. School districts would count homeschooled children towards their enrollment numbers and would provide consulting teachers for noncertified homeschooling parents. Finally, children taught by noncertified parents would have to score above the 30th percentile on standardized tests. With these changes, IHEA was supportive of the bill, but fundamentalist homeschoolers led by ICE continued to object to the provision that noncompliant parents could have their children removed by social services. Representative Horace Daggett agreed to monitor legislation for ICE as SF 149 stalled in committee. Meanwhile, ICE teamed up with other fundamentalist groups, including the Dallas County homeschooling support group which would later found the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators (NICHE, est. 1992), the largest statewide homeschool organization in Iowa during the early 1990s. Together these activists protested throughout the entire 1990 legislative session. By the end of the session, SF 149 had gotten out of committee and passed the House again. At the very last minute, on April 6, the bill failed to pass in the Senate by one vote when homeschoolers showed up en masse to protest.

In a September 1990 meeting of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council which was attended by both Kathy L. Collins and Sarah Leslie, the Council once again turned to the concerns of Dr. Montgomery that families in his school district were using homeschooling as a cover for child abuse. The Council resolved that it would not continue to push for child protective services involvement in response to violations of the compulsory attendance statute.

In May 1991, state homeschoolers led by IHEA were finally successful in passing a bill, HF 455, which made homeschooling without a teaching certificate legal in Iowa. The bill included provisions for hours of instruction; annual notification; immunization; annual assessment (including standardized test and portfolio options); and a remediation process with fines, community service, or imprisonment as penalties for noncompliance (and explicitly excluded CINA as a penalty for truancy). Homeschooling by a certified teacher and homeschooling with a parent under the supervision of a certified teacher (Home School Assistance Programs, or HSAPs) were also enshrined as legal options. Though fundamentalists still objected to some of the bill’s provisions (e.g. that learning disabled students could only be homeschooled with the approval of the school district), they were cautiously optimistic. The bill went into effect in July 1991, and the state Board of Education had drafted rules for its application by January 1992.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, fundamentalist homeschoolers (led by NICHE and HSLDA) continued to object to the law’s provisions, using “itinerant” teachers as their portfolio evaluators and having their children tested by nonpublic schools. In 1996 the regulations were amended to allow portfolio evaluators who were approved by the superintendent of the school district, rather than only those with a teaching certificate. In 2009, HSLDA succeeded in their campaign to have the approval requirement to homeschool a special needs child removed by the state Board of Education.

In 2013, Rep. Matt Windschitl (R-Missouri Valley), a second-generation homeschooler and the assistant majority leader in the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives, added a deregulation amendment into HF 215, a bill to reform public education. At the time, at least 10 Iowa lawmakers were either homeschool parents or homeschool alumni. House Democrats agreed to pass the deregulation amendment as part of a deal with Republicans, who threatened “to scuttle the education bill if homeschool reform was not part of the education reform package.” When the bill was signed into law, it came as a surprise to NICHE and HSLDA. The bill dramatically changed Iowa’s homeschooling laws—it created an additional homeschooling option, called “Independent Private Instruction,” which allowed homeschooling with essentially no regulations. Though many homeschoolers were pleased at this development, some were dismayed, and state education officials expressed worry about the possible results of deregulation.


For more state histories, see Histories of Homeschooling.

For more on homeschooling in Iowa, see Iowa.

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