The Testing of States’ Blaine Amendments– No Public Funding of Religious Schools

 Given that President Trump and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are poised to offer states financial incentives for instituting/expanding school vouchers, the issue becomes whether state constitutions allow public money to be used to fund private schools, particularly religious schools.

Time for a bit of history.

The commonly-used term to refer to state constitutional amendments that either prohibit or limit the use of public money in funding religious education is “Blaine amendment.”

Interestingly, the original Blaine Amendment was not a state issue but a national issue. The amendment was proposed in 1875 by Representative James G. Blaine (R-ME) at the urging of President Ulysses S. Grant in his final Congressional address.

President Grant also said the following in a September 1875 speech at a Society of the Army of the Tennessee convention in Iowa:

Now, the centennial year of our national existence, I believe, is a good time to begin the work of strengthening the foundations of the structure commenced by our patriotic forefathers one hundred years ago at Lexington. Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the security of free thought, free speech, a free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men irrespective of nationality, color, or religion. Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar, appropriated for their support, shall be appropriated to any sectarian schools. Resolve that neither the State nor Nation, nor both combined shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford to every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the Church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the Church and State forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.
(Source: Green, Steven K. “The Blaine Amendment Reconsidered,” American Journal of Legal History, v. 38, January 1992, page 15.)

The text of the Blaine Amendment “in the House, with slight modifications” was as follows:

No state shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any state for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor or any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; and no money or lands so devoted shall be divided among religious sects or denominations.
(Source: “The Catholic Peril in America,” May 1876, page 563, in The Eclectic Magazine: Foreign Literature, Volume 23; Volume 86.)

The Blaine Amendment passed the House 180-7; however, it failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate: 28-16, which fell along strict party lines.

Twenty-seven Senators failed to show for the Senate vote, including Blaine, who had become a US senator following his unsuccessful presidential bid. His absence supports the notion that he only proposed the amendment to further his career.

Even though the Blaine Amendment failed on the federal level in 1875, beginning in 1876, Congress required some Blaine-styled language in the state constitutions as a condition of statehood.

As it turns out, Betsy DeVos’ native Michigan has a tightly-written Blaine amendment:

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, pre-elementary, 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. The legislature may provide for the transportation of students to and from any school. (Michigan Constitution, Article VIII, § 2)

In November 2000, Michigan voters defeated Proposal 1, The Michigan Vouchers and Teacher Testing Amendment, 69.1% to 30.9%. The text of Proposal 1 was as follows:

Initiative Constitutional Amendment The proposed constitutional amendment would: 1) Eliminate ban on indirect support of students attending nonpublic schools through tuition vouchers, credits, tax benefits, exemptions or deductions, subsidies, grants or loans of public monies or property. 2) Allow students to use tuition vouchers to attend nonpublic schools in districts with a graduation rate under 2/3 in 1998-1999 and districts approving tuition vouchers through school board action or a public vote. Each voucher would be limited to ½ of state average per-pupil public school revenue. 3) Require teacher testing on academic subjects in public schools and in nonpublic schools redeeming tuition vouchers. 4) Adjust minimum per-pupil funding from 1994-1995 to 2000-2001 level.

According to Ed Week, the DeVos and her husband supported Proposal 1 to the tune of roughly $13 million. Still, the voters would not have it.

Indeed, the altering of state constitutions is apparently what would have to happen in many states if states follow the lure of federal money in the name of voucher choice–either that, or some creative maneuvering in the name of “indirect” funding if a given state constitution would allow as much.

In 1876, the federal government enticed many states to include Blaine amendments as a condition of statehood. In 2017, the federal government will likely try to at least seriously dilute those Blaine amendments in order to send public money to private, religious schools.

Stay tuned for a flurry of state constitution ballot measures and other creative means of assuring the US Department of Education that they are prepared to funnel public money toward private schools in salivating reaction to dangled federal dollars.

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Longer, more detailed version originally posted 03-04-17 at deutsch29.wordpress.com.

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