Canada’s tiny province of Prince Edward Island, ancestral home of Anne of Green Gables, is all abuzz with the latest news. Two groups of Amish families from Woodstock and Waterloo County, Ontario, are heading east to P.E.I. and plan to establish not only a new colony of farm settlers but a traditional one-room schoolhouse to educate their children. Friendly Islanders in Eastern P.E.I. are preparing a hearty spring 2016 welcome and the P.E.I. Government has amended its School Act to smooth the way.
The courtship of the Amish began two years ago. An Ontario farm-equipment salesman specializing in horse-drawn vehicles, Tony Wallbank, was the key player in the planned Eastern Migration. A few years ago, he began seeking new, affordable land for the growing colonies of Ontario Amish and explored prospective properties in Northern Ontario and various places in the northern United States. That ended when he toured eastern P.E.I. in 2014 and discovered rolling fields and landowners anxious to sell their properties for a fraction of the $20,000 an acre cost in Ontario.
Wallbank and the Amish elders found, in eastern P.E.I., perhaps the last vestige of unspoiled rural life in the settled region of southern Canada. The reception committee of Islanders, including Paul MacNeill, publisher of The Eastern Graphic and local realtor Brad Oliver of Montague, P.E.I., laid out quite a welcome mat. In this region of the Island, it was not hard to find landowners anxious to retire and citizens enthused about seeing their properties farmed rather than sitting idle or being sold-off as acreage for expanding agribusinesses.
The prospect of attracting Amish settlers did what no amount of lobbying by P.E. I. home schoolers could ever have achieved. Canada’s least receptive province to school choice and home schooling, P.E.I., almost overnight underwent a tremendous conversion. A formal request from Wallbank and the Amish in the fall of 2015 to amend the School Act regulations was hurried into law.
A critically-important P.E.I. School Act provision limiting Home Schooling to groups with a “certified teacher-advisor” was lifted. That restrictive provision, enacted in 2009, to limit and control any expansion of home education, was suddenly deemed unnecessary by provincial school officials.
The official Education Department line was rather interesting. “It wasn’t really a barrier,” Education Minister Hal Perry told CBC News PEI in October 2015. “It was a bit of a hurdle,” he added, and an issue for the newcomers. “(The Amish) felt it was important that they home school their children in their own tradition. We as a government, respect that.” Deputy Minister Sandy MacDonald, when asked about the change insisted it was not a big issue because the Amish were proposing to home school their children without any expectation of provincial funding.
The impending arrival of two colonies of Amish, numbering perhaps 50 families, was enough to secure a small sliver of “school choice” in Canada’s least receptive province. Virtually all students in P.E.I. have only one school choice — and 98.8 % of the 21, 516 students in 2009-10 attended the public system. In a 2015 report on Home Schooling in Canada, P.E.I. was identifed as restrictive in its regulations with only 81 students (or 0.4% of the total school enrolment) home schooled in 2011-12. By 2005-16, the numbers had dropped to 77 students from some 45 families — all with an approved teacher-advisor.
The Amish are firm in their belief in traditional education delivered by lay teachers who are members of the Christian religious sect. For Old Order Amish families, schooling ends in Grade 8 and children are then generally expected to join the family farming enterprise. Children are expected to master the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics and to observe Amish ways, including leading simple lives without modern conveniences such as electricity or indoor plumbing.
Amish education represents a complete rejection of the modern, pluralistic and religion-free secular school system. The rights of the Old Order Amish to freedom from public schooling was guaranteed in a landmark U.S. legal decision, Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972). It granted the Amish the right to limit their children’s education to eight grades in parochial, one-room schools operating in traditional fashion and further held that such an education was “as effective ” as that provided by modern public elementary schools. That right, once secured, has been vigorously defended by Amish elders and educators in Canada as well as the United States.
Why did it take an Amish migration to open the doors a little more to school choice in Prince Edward Island? Now that Old Order Amish have the right to home schooling their children in groups, does that right extend to other families and groups with alternative school plans? To what extent would P.E.I. and other parts of rural Canada benefit from opening the doors to groups seeking to establish alternative schools?