By Edd Doerr | 12 January 2017
Americans for Religious Liberty
“Why Michigan Doesn’t Have School Vouchers and Probably Never Will” blared the headline on an article in a leading education journal on January 4. Something called the “Blaine Amendment” in the state constitution stands in the way, it asserted. “Blaine Amendment” is school voucher advocate code for provisions in three fourths of the state constitutions intended to bar support for sectarian private schools with public funds, but more on that later.
The article was wrong. Here is what really happened. Michigan educators, civil libertarians and other defenders of public education and religious liberty got tired of trying to fend off attempts by state lawmakers to divert public funds to church-run and other private schools, so in early 1970 they launched an effort to amend the state constitution to strengthen the existing ban. I know because I was one of the people who helped draft the amendment.
Here’s the amendment in its final form: “Article VIII, Section 2. No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized, by the legislature or any other political subdivision or agency of the state directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic preelementary, elementary, or secondary school. No payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies or property shall be provided, directly or indirectly, to support the attendance of any student or the employment of any person at any such nonpublic school or at any location or institution where instruction is offered in whole or in part to such nonpublic school students.”
After proponents of the amendment had gathered more than 320,000 signatures to place it on the ballot, Attorney General Frank Kelley tried to block it, but the Michigan Court of Appeals on September 2 ordered it back on the ballot. The campaign raged until the election in November. Well do I remember campaigning for it from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula. When the ballots were counted the amendment had won by 57% to 43%. The details of the nearly year long campaign were reported in Church & State magazine, of which I had been named managing editor in September 1970.
In 1978 the pro-voucher forces sought to repeal the 1970 amendment, but the effort was crushed at the ballot box by 74% to 26%. Another effort to repeal was launched in 2000, this time with nearly $13 million from Betsy DeVos and her wealthy family. Their campaign was defeated by Michigan voters by 69% to 31%.
Before taking up the so-called “Blaine Amendment” let’s look at the 1966-67 battle in New York State similar to the one in Michigan. A state constitutional convention was called in 1966. Dominated by the interests seeking tax support for church-run private schools, it sought to replace Article XI, Section 3 of the state constitution, which reads: “Neither the state nor any subdivision thereof shall use its property or credit or any public money, or authorize or permit either to be used, directly or indirectly, in aid or maintenance, other than for examination or inspection, of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught, but the legislature may provide for the transportation of children to and from any school or institution of learning.” (The transportation clause was added in 1937.) The original XI,3 language was the result of New York’s 1894 constitutional convention, which approved the language by a vote of 108 to 73.
After a months long hard fought campaign the state’s voters defeated the proposed new constitution, mainly over the attempted XI,3 substitution, by 72% to 28%. Details of the New York battle are spelled out in my 1968 book, The Conspiracy That Failed. We might note that between 1965 and 2014 there have been 28 state referenda on various forms of tax aid for private schools from Massachusetts to California and from Florida to Alaska, with voter opposition averaging 2 to 1. Also, the 2015 Gallup/PDK education poll registered opposition at 57% to 31%.
Now let’s look at the “Blaine Amendment.” Right after the Civil War the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution to, among other things, extend the Bill of Rights to cover state governments. However, in 1873 the Supreme Court in the Slaughter-House Cases largely gutted this meaning and did not begin remedying it until the 20th century. So, in 1876 President Grant recommended amending the Constitution to bar any and all tax aid to church-run schools. The amendment was introduced by Senator James G. Blaine. It passed the House overwhelmingly but fell slightly short of the required 2/3 in the Senate. In recent years the interests seeking tax support for church-run and other private schools have taken to calling all state constitutional barriers “Blaine Amendments.”
The constitutions of both Alaska and Hawaii, the two states admitted to the Union after World War II, contain provisions barring tax aid to church-run schools. Voters in Alaska (1976) and Hawaii (2014) voted to retain those bans.
But that’s not the whole story. Until well into the 19th century the US was overwhelmingly Protestant and public schools allowed nondenominational prayer and Bible reading. This was largely opposed by the surge of Irish Catholic immigration. Good people on both sides of the religious divide well remembered the centuries of religious wars and conflicts that followed the Reformation. The leadership of the Catholic Church in Rome during the 19th century only fanned the flames. Meanwhile, Catholic leadership promoted the founding of parochial schools and sought public funding, which was blocked by state constitutions and majority public opinion.
Matters were largely resolved in the early 1960s when the Supreme Court outlawed public school religious devotions. In the wake of those rulings and the long in motion gradual secularizing of the public schools, Catholic school enrollment declined from 5.5 million in 1965 to 2 million today. President Nixon, who favored vouchers, had two Catholic universities study that enrollment decline; they concluded that it was due to changing parental preferences and not economics. However, the court ordered desegregation of public schools in the 1960s led to the founding of Protestant schools and the invention of school vouchers by Milton Friedman. (Parenthetically, let us note that Friedman’s voucher plan was imposed in Chile by the Pinochet military dictatorship.)
So here we are in early January 2017, with a president-elect, who never attended or sent his own kids to public schools, picking as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who never attended or sent her kids to public schools or had any experience as a teacher or administrator but who has a long record of working and financing efforts to undermine public education and divert public funds to special interest private schools.
Shortly after the election I re-read the 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by feminism pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born exactly 200 years before DeVos. Wollstonecraft, who, unlike DeVos, had actual experience as a teacher, advocated tax-supported public schools in which boys and girls, rich and poor, could be educated together. It seems that DeVos is two centuries past her sell-by date.
Relevant to all this it the fact that since 2008 35 states have cut per capita funding for public schools by about 7%. Also, the 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 75% of Americans regard public school funding as very important, compared to 77% who consider Medicare funding as very important.
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