Time for the Removal of Antiquated Barriers to School Choice

Commentary

Time for the Removal of Antiquated Barriers to School Choice

State governments can help today's students get the best possible education by eliminating all Blaine Amendments

Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States drew a lot of attention to climate change, immigration and poverty. Much of the nation latched on to the pope’s message about helping society’s most vulnerable. One of the best ways to improve the long-term prospects for the most disadvantaged among us is by giving them better educational opportunities early in life.

“I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty,” Pope Francis said. “They too need to be given hope.”

During his trip, the pope visited Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem. He arrived to find throngs of students wearing yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Giving families more educational options plays a vital role in instilling the hope Francis talked about.

“Very near here is a very important street named after a man who did a lot for other people. I want to talk a little bit about him,” Pope Francis told the school’s students. “He was the Reverend Martin Luther King. One day he said, ‘I have a dream.’ His dream was that many children, many people could have equal opportunities. His dream was that many children like you could get an education. It is beautiful to have dreams and to be able to fight for them.”

Our Lady Queen of Angels School serves mostly low-income Latino and black children – the sorts of kids the public school system is failing far too regularly. Interestingly, some of the biggest roadblocks to getting impoverished kids into better schools are archaic, 19th century state constitutional provisions with a history of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry. These clauses are often called “Blaine Amendments.”

Though the specific language varies across the 37 states that have the laws, “Blaine Amendments” prohibit using public funds for religious purposes. Rhetorically, their supporters tout them as a necessary means of separating church and state. Practically, they are being used today as political bludgeons against school choice efforts.

The amendments were born amidst 19th century tensions between native Protestants and Catholic immigrants. Education reformer Horace Mann led a movement in the early 1800s to teach America’s youth a Protestant-influenced cultural homogeneity through public schools. Besides typical secular subjects, daily instruction included prayer and readings of the King James Bible.

After the 1840s, waves of German and Irish Catholic immigrants challenged this state-sponsored religious indoctrination. To the Protestant, native majority, Catholic protests were a threat. One commentator argued, “Popery is the natural enemy of general education.”

Catholics and other non-Protestants campaigned to remove religious lessons from public education. The courts and native public did not see such lessons as “sectarian.” For “sectarian” itself was essentially a code word for Catholic at the time. The unsaid distinction was so well understood that in 1889, New Hampshire Senator Henry Blair introduced a bill forbidding public funding to “sectarian schools” but requiring public schools to teach “principles of the Christian faith.”

In the 1870s, Maine Sen. James G. Blaine introduced a federal constitutional amendment banning tax dollars from supporting schools “under the control of any religious sect.” Most contemporaries recognized that the amendment was geared more toward rousing electoral support in the 1876 election than protecting religious liberty. After an overwhelming victory in the House, the bill fell just two votes short of the two-thirds threshold needed to pass as a constitutional amendment in the Senate.

Nevertheless, federal failure did not stop states from adopting their own Blaine Amendments. In the same year, Congress even passed a law requiring new states to include the language in their constitutions in order to join the Union. Now, 37 states later, Blaine Amendments are a fixture of most state politics.

In theory, Blaine Amendments shouldn’t restrict school choice programs like vouchers or education savings accounts. These programs are designed to benefit children and their families, not private schools. Some families, not the state, choose to use their dollars for parochial schools. The United States Supreme Court recognized these programs’ secular intentions, which is why it upheld Ohio’s voucher plan in 2002 with its decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harristhat ruled such programs constitutional under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Practically, all Blaine Amendments do is obstructing good-faith efforts to improve the lives of the children who will benefit from more options. The Amendments are a bludgeon to oppose voucher and educational savings account programs across the country, most recently in Colorado and Nevada.

Douglas County, Colorado created the nation’s first district-level school choice program in 2011. It gave 500 students scholarships equivalent to three quarters of their public school funding dollars to use at a private school of their choice. The plan had the unanimous support of the school board, but thanks to a lawsuit by the ACLU citing Blaine Amendments, the Colorado State Supreme Court struck down the innovative program this June.

Nevada’s Education Savings Account plan has been under threat thanks to Blaine Amendments since August. The ESA program’s historic. It’s the first state-level universal school choice program in history. It give parents the groundbreaking power to use their child’s education funding for any approved educational expense. Parents can customize their child’s education to suit their needs. ESA dollars can be used for private school tuition, but they can also be spent on textbooks, online courses, even educational therapies for special needs children. Nevada built a bridge to opportunity for tens of thousands, but the ACLU would block this innovation as well with Blaine Amendments, since some parents might use ESA dollars at parochial schools.

Semantic debates on “sectarianism” ultimately block revolutionary student learning innovations for the sake of protecting defunct educational monopolies. Blaine Amendments’ true cost are the proven empirical gains, consistent across hundreds of studies, for learning that students are blocked from reaping thanks to 19th century bigotry.

Just before he arrived in the U.S., Pope Francis visited Cuba, where he said, “Education is one of the human rights. A child has the right to be loved. A child has the right, the human right, to play. A child has the right to learn and to smile. A child has the right to education.”

State governments can fulfill this promise by helping today’s students get the best possible educations-and reach their fullest potentials-by removing antiquated barriers to choice.

Tyler Koteskey was an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.