Want school choice? Oppose the Blaine Amendment

Intended against Catholic schools, amendment blocks public funding

Therese Bussen

On July 18, the Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a public briefing to examine the Blaine Amendment as a civil rights issue based on its discrimination against Catholics and freedom of school choice.

But the amendment is a nearly 150-year-old-law.

In 1875, a time when immigration was changing the face of the nation, the then-speaker of the House of Representatives, James Blaine, Republican U.S. Representative from Maine, proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It may seem harmless on paper, but the intention behind the amendment — which passed in the House 180 to 7 and just missed passing in the Senate, only short by two votes — was to target Catholic schools and block them from government funding. While it didn’t pass federally, 38 states implemented this amendment.

Now known as the Blaine Amendment, the law states, “Neither the general assembly, nor any county, city, town, township, school district or other public corporation, shall ever make any appropriation, or pay from any public fund or moneys whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian society, or for any sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatsoever.” Colorado Const. Art. IX, § 7.

“Sectarian”? Read: Catholic.

At the time that the amendment took effect, the country was faced with widespread immigration, especially from the Irish, who were predominantly Catholic.

This threatened the primarily Protestant Americans, who saw the Irish Catholics as anti-American as the immigrants began forming their own Catholic schools to avoid Protestant teaching.

According to writer Philip Hamburger in an article about the amendment, Blaine, who hoped to run for president, thought a good way to get votes would be to block these Catholic schools from government funding, calling them and any other religions that can’t partner with other religions in schools, “sectarian.”

In Douglas County, due to a Colorado Supreme Court ruling in 2015, students were blocked from receiving vouchers to attend private schools that met district criteria, which included some religious schools. Now due to the ruling, a clause was added to the state amendment, which bars “public moneys” from being given “in aid of any church or sectarian society.”

Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, attended the public meeting on July 18 among some other 50 people, she said.

The members of the committee were “well-split for or against,” according to Kraska and presented 10-minute descriptions on why they supported or opposed the amendment.

Kraska, along with Helen Raleigh, a member of the committee who brought the issue forward, believe that the Blaine Amendment is indeed a civil rights issue that discriminates against Catholics, particularly in the choice of education.

“It’s definitely a civil rights issue, because it affects a lot of people and especially a lot of children, and it’s something that gets glossed over, because people don’t know what it is or understand it,” Kraska said. “[Overturning the amendment would be] providing a choice for families and children, and to deny children that ability in all types of education settings is wrong.”

Raleigh, a writer who discovered the Blaine Amendment’s history while doing research for her book on immigration, The Broken Welcome Mat, wrote in a column, “Many people today probably are unaware of the discriminating nature of the Blaine Amendments.”

But upon discovering it, she saw clearly what needed to be done: Bring it back into the public eye.

“I learned that this law is rooted in anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigotry and it still impacts Colorado families today,” Raleigh told Denver Catholic. “So I brought it up to the Colorado Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The Committee voted to investigate.”

The next steps, Kraska said, are to accumulate public comment on the issue in order to eventually bring it to legislature.

“The next steps are to provide an option for legislative movement to provide educational choice programs — we’d have a thriving voucher program in Douglas county and we could see that in other districts,” Kraska said. “It opens the door to more choices for schools that the amendment deems as ‘sectarian’ or religious.”

According to Raleigh, the public has 30 days from the meeting (until Aug. 18) to send comments to the committee to oppose or support the amendment; after that, the committee will gather the comments and interview small groups impacted by the amendment. Finally, they will produce a report, published at the federal level.

Raleigh is hopeful that something can be done to overturn the amendment, and the first step is getting the public’s interest.

“We had three of the speakers recognize [that this is a problem]. It’s a 150-year-old bigotry law and really impacts low-income families,” Raleigh said.

Comments may be sent to 1961 Stout Street, Suite 13-201, Denver, CO 80294 until Aug. 18.

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Parents choose. Kids win.

School choice a legislative priority for the archdiocese in 2017

Aaron Lambert

The Office of Catholic Schools, the Colorado Catholic Conference and a diverse group of state-wide allies are teaming up to make school choice an important issue this legislative session, which opened Jan. 11.

Superintendent Kevin Kijewski and Colorado Catholic Conference executive director Jenny Kraska are pushing for Colorado legislators to consider implementing a scholarship tax credit program within the state, which would grant a tax credit to individuals and/or businesses who make donations to scholarship-granting organizations. Those organizations can then use the donations to create scholarships that can be given to help pay for the cost of tuition at private schools or out-of-district public schools that would otherwise be too expensive for families.

The overarching goal for passing such a law is to promote school choice, or as Kijewski and Kraska prefer to call it, parental choice.

“We’ve been making a concerted effort to get away from using the term ‘school choice’ to the term ‘parental choice,’ because really, it’s about parents being able to make the decisions for their kids,” Kraska said.

Implementing a scholarship tax credit program could be beneficial not only for Catholic schools, but for private and charter schools as well. Ultimately, it empowers parents to be, as the Catholic Church teaches, the primary educators and teachers of their children.

“It’s not just about Catholic schools; it’s about giving kids and parents choices,” Kijewski told the Denver Catholic.

The concept of school choice is a hot button issue in education, made even more so with the nomination of known school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as education secretary. School choice, in its simplest form, can be defined as programs that offer students and their families alternatives to public schools. Every taxpayer funds public schools with the taxes they pay; school choice allows for these public funds to follow students the schools or services that best meet their needs, whether that be public schools, private schools, charter schools, or homeschooling.

“It’s not just about Catholic schools; it’s about giving kids and parents choices.”

While the current federal ruling supports private school choice through public funding–a precedent set by the 2002 Supreme Court case Zelman V. Harris–the main obstacle to school choice lies within the states. In Colorado’s case, there are two Blaine Amendments in the state constitution that strictly prohibit any public funds from being allocated to private school entities. These provisions date back to the late 1800s and are named for Congressman James G. Blaine, who fueled the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the time by lobbying for these provisions to be passed in each of the states after a federal proposal was shot down.

Thirty-eight of the 50 states in the U.S. still have some sort of Blaine amendment in their state constitutions.

“[Blaine amendments] provide a huge impediment for [public] money flowing to private schools,” Kraska said.

There are a few different options when it comes to school choice, including the popular voucher system and the more recent Education Savings Accounts. For Colorado, however, Kijewski and Kraska suggest the best option is to implement a scholarship tax credit program, which have also been implemented in 17 other states.

Giving parents control

Brittany Corona is a national school choice advocate and former director of state policy for EdChoice. She is starting a National Catholic education reform nonprofit organization, the vision for which is based on the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis. It will work primarily to unify the Catholic voice in education reform and advocate directly within the school choice network.

According to Gravissimum Educationis, parents are the primary teachers of their children and should be free to choose which school their child goes to in conformity with their conscience. To that end, Corona said that school choice works in conjunction with the Church’s teachings regarding education.

“Allowing for public funds, or in the case of tax credit scholarships, charitable donations to scholarship granting organizations, to be directed toward families who direct those dollars towards school choice or education options in choice, is consistent with Church teaching,” Corona explained.

There are limitations to scholarship tax credits, however. Corona said that because they’re funded entirely by charitable donations, there is a cap on the money that students are able to access. According to Corona, the ideal method for school choice would be to “allow parents to direct the dollars that are allotted for their children to an education option of choice.” Education Savings Accounts are the best option to systematically change the system for school choice, she said.

Still, she said that in the case of Colorado, scholarship tax credits are the best way to go.

If parents are able to choose what school to send their kids to, you’re going to have a healthy amount of competition among all the different schools out there, including Catholic schools. Everyone needs to raise the bar, and school choice is the incentive to do so.”

“Scholarship tax credits differ from other school choice options because they’re completely made up of charitable contributions, so it’s not coming out of the state pot of public funding at all,” she said.

Though results vary on a state-by-state basis, statistics show that attendance rates at private schools increase when parents are given choices of which schools to send their kids to. The state of Florida implemented a scholarship tax credit program in 2001, and recent statistics published by the Florida Department of Education show a steady increase in private school enrollment rates from 2011-2016.

Competition also plays a factor when parents have a choice, which can increase the overall quality of education a school offers.

“If parents are able to choose what school to send their kids to, you’re going to have a healthy amount of competition among all the different schools out there, including Catholic schools,” Kijewski said. “Everyone needs to raise the bar, and school choice is the incentive to do so.

“This is about empowering people, not only to go to Catholic school, but to go to whatever school they want. It’s about empowering people to make choices for their kids.”