A byproduct of anti-Catholic bigotry in the 1800s, Blaine amendments have become the preferred method for those attempting to block parents from choosing where their children go to school.
The families targeted by this anti-choice effort often are the most disadvantaged—those with low household income or those who have children with disabilities.
Therefore it was gratifying to see the Oklahoma Supreme Court recently uphold a scholarship program for students with disabilities despite opponents’ attempts to overturn the program by citing that state’s Blaine amendment.
The origin of Blaine amendments date back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, when politicians feeding on anti-Catholic hysteria failed to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit public funding of sectarian schools. While not specifically singled out, their target was parochial schools. Having failed at the federal level, they then turned to amending state constitutions.
As a result, there are 37 states with versions of a Blaine amendment.
Opponents of school choice have used these amendments for more than 15 years to try to block voucher and scholarship programs in which sectarian schools participate. They initially failed in Ohio and Wisconsin. Most recently they have failed in Oklahoma.
The basic argument used against their position is this: States are not funding sectarian schools with these programs. They are making education funds available to parents, who make their own choices about what schools their children will attend.
In its ruling, the Oklahoma Supreme Court wrote: “The Act is void of any preference between a sectarian or non-sectarian private school…Scholarship funds deposited to a private sectarian school occur only as the result of the private independent choice by the parent or legal guardian.’’
While a victory for Oklahoma families, this is a state ruling that extends only to its borders. In other states the issue remains unresolved.
For example, in Nevada, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit against that state’s scholarship program, embracing that state’s Blaine amendment.
In Missouri, the state refused to allow a Trinity Lutheran preschool to participate in a program in which mulch made from recycled tires is given to schools to use as playground coverings. It provides a safer, softer surface for children. The school sued, and now the case has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it will be heard this year.
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is representing the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia in the case.
“No state can define religious neutrality as treating religious organizations worse than everyone else,’’ said ADF Senior Council David Cortman.
In Colorado, that state’s Supreme Court overturned a voucher program in Douglas County, ruling that it violated the state’s Blaine amendment. The ACLU represented opponents of the program.
Four non-profit organizations dedicated to school choice have filed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the Colorado case. They are the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, the American Federation for Children, the Goldwater Institute and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd).
“The Blaine amendment is an archaic and ill-designed provision designed to sanction state-sponsored discrimination,” said Patricia Levesque, CEO of ExcelinEd. “Shamefully, the ACLU and others have embraced this bigoted legacy.”
The goal is to have the U.S. Supreme Court take up the issue and resolve it on a national level, thereby ending state-by-state battles being waged over parents’ rights and children’s futures.
Even when opponents of school choice lose these cases, they succeed in disrupting the programs and keeping the families enrolled in them in limbo year after year.
It is time to give all families the ability to decide where their children go to school and the certainty that their decisions will not be overturned depending upon which state they live in.
About the author
Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet
Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at Mike@excelined.org