Commentary

It’s Time for the Blaine Amendment to Go

The Colorado Supreme Court this week struck down a Douglas County program that would have given families vouchers to pay for private — including religious — schools. The court ruled that the program would violate the state’s Blaine Amendment, which bars “public… moneys” from being allocated “in aid of any church or sectarian society.”

The district is considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, partly on the grounds that the amendment is rooted in anti-Catholic prejudice.

That, however, is not its main problem. Its primary fault is that it blocks the only way to deliver education consistent with a harmonious, diverse society: choice.

Blaine amendments are certainly connected to hostility toward Roman Catholics. In 1875, Maine Sen. James G. Blaine proposed an amendment to the federal Constitution barring any state’s funds from being spent on sectarian schools. The thing was, public schools were de facto Protestant institutions and “sectarian” was basically code for “Catholic.” The amendment failed at the federal level, but many states adopted such measures, which currently exist in about two-thirds of state constitutions.

A single system of schools simply cannot be all things to all people.

The genesis of prohibitions against funding sectarian schools, however, was not anti-Catholicism. The first major battles over public schools and religion were among Protestants in Massachusetts, the birthplace of the “common schools” and their most famous advocate, Horace Mann.

Mann was the first secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, and in the 1830s and 1840s he advocated tirelessly for uniform public schools in the hopes of one day instilling common values and culture in all children. To accomplish this, Mann knew that the schools could not teach precepts that were distinctly Congregationalist, Baptist, etc. That, he feared, would spur conflicts and drive people away.

But removing disputed content was itself seen as sectarian. Many people of Massachusetts believed that the specific teachings of their denominations were crucial to education, and reducing religion to lowest-common-denominator Protestantism would render the schools de facto Unitarian, the denomination of Mann and many common school advocates. Indeed, Edward A. Newton, an Episcopalian who had been an original member of the state board, accused the Unitarian-dominated body of “excluding the introduction of all matters deemed by them sectarian in religion, or, as we affirm, vital and distinctive in the Christian scheme.”

Today, after more than a century of religious conflicts, public schools are prohibited from teaching religion. Ironically, the public schools’ ultimate inability to include religion is a major reason why, as the state Supreme Court noted, roughly nine out of 10 children who wanted Douglas County vouchers planned to use them at religious schools. Non-majority religious groups have historically been the most marginalized by public schools — understanding that African-Americans had to fight just to get into them — and have hence been the most compelled to erect alternatives.

They have also, often due to subsidies from congregations, been best equipped to overcome the biggest non-legal obstacle to choice: having to pay once for public schools, and a second time for acceptable institutions. Most private schools are religious because they have been best able to survive — though often barely — against “free” public schools.

Since the days of Mann and Blaine, the public school system has encompassed ever-more diverse people — not just religiously, but racially, ethnically, and ideologically — and has proven the impossibility of avoiding divisive conflict and treating all diverse people equally. A single system of schools simply cannot be all things to all people.

Over just the last few years, Colorado has repeatedly seen this first-hand. There was the national-headline-grabbing battle in Jefferson County over the ideological bent of Advanced Placement U.S. History classes. There was a dispute in Denver over a requirement that teachers encourage students to “challenge and question the dominant culture.” And Adams County has been ground zero for warfare over how to teach English to non-native speakers.

Ironically, much of this divisive conflict could have been avoided by doing precisely what the Blaine Amendment — created to support a system intended to coerce unity — prohibits: letting people take the money allocated for their children’s education to schools that fit their values.

For the sake of freedom, peace, and unity, it is time for Blaine to go.

Neal McCluskey is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.