Blaine Amendments Protect Religious Liberty, Prohibit Establishing Religion via School Vouchers

So-called Blaine Amendments in many of the state constitutions prohibit the diversion of taxpayer dollars to religious schools.  Over the weekend, The Hill published a commentary on the state Blaine Amendments by Robert G. Natelson , a retired professor of constitutional law and a fellow at the the far-right Heartland Institute. Natelson argues that the U.S. Supreme Court should overturn the Blaine Amendments in several state constitutions because they were created in an era of anti-Catholic bias and at a time when public schools reflected their Protestant beginnings.

Several times in the 1870s and 1880s, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, James G. Blaine proposed a federal constitutional amendment to prohibit the expenditure of public dollars at religious schools.  While the amendment to the U.S. Constitution was never adopted, a number of the states passed so-called Blaine Amendments to their constitutions. In many those states today, the Blaine Amendment has been interpreted to mean that the state constitution prohibits the use of school vouchers in sectarian schools.

Diane Ravitch, the historian of education, responds to Natelson at the Huffington Post. She agrees with Natelson about the origin of the Blaine Amendments:, “Natelson is right that the public schools of the 19th century were deeply imbued with Protestant teachings and practices… The arrival of large numbers of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, mostly Catholic, concurred with the beginnings of public school systems in urban areas…. The Blaine Amendment appealed to anti-Catholic sentiment among the dominant Protestant majority….”

Ravitch explains, however, that public schools are no longer dominated by any religion, nor do they incorporate religious practices.  Courts, according to Ravitch, ought to consider the reality that today, public schools have shed religious practices, particularly since the 1962, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Engel v Vitale, that banned school prayer.  Today public schools are expected to protect the right of each child to worship according to the child’s or family’s religious beliefs and to protect the U.S. Constitutional ban on religious education.

There is widespread acceptance today in public schools and across U.S. religious bodies that the First Amendment protection of freedom of religion applies in schools operated in the public sphere by government. Here is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  The first part of the First Amendment (referred to as the Establishment Clause) protects against the government’s in any way favoring—“establishing”— any particular religion, and the second clause guarantees residents of the United States the right to worship according to their own traditions.

Ravitch explains today’s reality that by law, students are protected from religious bias in their public schools:  “The motives of James G. Blaine or Catherine Beecher Stowe or Horace Mann or Henry Bernard or any of the other 19ht century founders of public schools are irrelevant today. They matter less than the reality and practices of public schools today that the Blaine Amendments permit and protect. Because of the states’ Blaine Amendments, public schools across the nation welcome children who are of every religion or no religion, whether Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or any other belief.  To rule against the Blaine Amendments would open the door to subsidizing religious schools with public dollars.”  Many promoters of school vouchers, including Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, want to eliminate the state-by-state Blaine Amendments as a way to ensure that school vouchers are permissible in every state.

Ravitch writes, “If the High Court reviews the state Blaine Amendments, I hope the Justices will recognize that the founders knowingly decided to avoid state entanglement with religious establishment… Our public schools are no longer the Protestant public schools that Bishop Hughes fought against. They are an integral part of our democratic society. They are a public good, like the services of police and firefighters, like public beaches, libraries, and parks.  Separation of church and state is a valuable principle that protects the church schools from government intervention and mandates. Religious liberty is best protected by keeping it separate from government dollars and government control.”

Today America’s major religious denominations have themselves strongly endorsed the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom in the public schools. Ensuring that public schools do not “establish” or favor one set of religious beliefs over another means that parents will not have to worry that a school will teach religious beliefs contrary to the tradition of their family.

In 1995 the First Amendment Center convened a group of religious and educational leaders who endorsed a set of principles (Finding Common Ground, pp. 11-13)

  1. “Religious liberty is an inalienable right of every person.
  2. “Citizenship in a diverse society means living with our deepest differences and committing ourselves to work for public policies that are in the best interest of all individuals, families, communities and our nation.
  3. “Public schools must model the democratic process and constitutional principles in the development of policies and curricula.
  4. “Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect.”

The religious organizations that subscribed to these principles were: the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Christian Coalition, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches of Christ, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Just last month The Christian Century editorialized supporting our nation’s public schools that serve children from many religions and opposing school vouchers. The Christian Century describes itself as a magazine that has, “For decades… informed and shaped progressive, mainline Christianity.” Its mission statement declares, “Committed to thinking critically and living faithfully, the magazine explores what it means to believe and live out the Christian faith in our time… (T)he Century is both loyal to the church and open to the world.”

In its recent editorial, The Christian Century affirms the role of public education and castigates vouchers, but the editorial focuses on the right of every child in our society to a quality public education.  The magazine does not assume any presence of religion in public schools but instead emphasizes the danger when meager public education dollars are used to privatize schools, whether or not they are religious: “(N)owhere is there demonstrative evidence that the mechanisms of market choice and privatization have improved education overall. Their downside, however, is quite clear: wherever charters and vouchers operate, they siphon money from the public school systems which are charged with educating every student, regardless of physical or mental ability, income, or parent involvement. The schools that have demonstrated real reform in recent years are ones that have focused over the long haul on the unglamorous tasks of setting high goals, finding and supporting excellent principals, continually supporting and training teachers, and staying connected to parents and community. Supporting public schools in that hard work is the best focus for government dollars.”

The Christian Century endorses justice for all children, whatever their families’ religious beliefs, in democratically owned and operated public schools designed to protect the rights and serve the needs of our nation’s 50 million students.

Update: Yesterday afternoon in the “Answer Sheet” column at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss re-printed Diane Ravitch’s Huffington Post column and added an introduction about the timeliness of this issue. Strauss reports that the U.S. Supreme Court is soon scheduled to begin hearing a case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, which involves the constitutionality of Missouri’s Blaine Amendment.  Arguments are set to begin on April 19, and Strauss explains that, “the decision could determine the fate of Blaine Amendments across the country.”  Strauss adds another piece of important legal history, citing a quite recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed the Establishment Clause itself in relation to public education: “In the landmark 1947 Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing case, the Supreme court wrote that the Establishment Clause does create a ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, and that means that, at the very least, no ‘tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.'”

It is very much worth reading Ravitch’s column here or reprinted in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” column with Strauss’s introduction.

Trump and DeVos Harp on School Choice, a Lifeboat Strategy to Save a Few Students

Chalkbeat describes President Donald Trump’s Congressional speech Tuesday night, an address in which the President reprised Arne Duncan and called education “the civil rights issue of our time.”  Then President Trump made a leap to school choice—basically calling school choice the civil rights issue of our time: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time. I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”  It’s an interesting definition of educational civil rights, to say the least.

In his speech to Congress, Trump then hinted at the type of school choice he is likely to propose, though there was no indication when he and his Secretary of Education are likely to move forward with such a plan. Trump had brought a young, Florida woman to the gallery, a young woman who participated years ago in Florida’s tuition tax credit program—a program Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said she admires.  DeVos has served on the board of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which developed the model for this program.

Here is what Trump said about his guest last night: “Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather.  As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.”

This blog has traced the interest of President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos in tuition tax credits here and explained all forms of vouchers (including tuition tax credits)—public tax dollars diverted to pay students’ tuition in private schools—here.

Back when Arne Duncan was education secretary, a good indication of the Obama administration’s plans for education was in the policies promoted by the Washington, D.C.—Democrat-leaning—think-tank, the Center for American Progress.  Perhaps we can see a similar dynamic operating on Tuesday night, as one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the education ideas in Trump’s speech was the American Federation for Children, the huge lobbying organization—founded, funded, and formerly chaired by Betsy Devos.  The American Federation for Children has promoted the privatization of education through vouchers, tuition tax credits, and expansion of charters in a climate free of “bureaucratic” regulation.

Here is the statement, released on Tuesday evening by John Kirtley, vice-chairman of the American Federation for Children: “We were pleased to hear the President offer strong support for school choice in his address to the joint session of Congress tonight… Now is the time to act with bold conviction. We urge school choice advocates to work with Congress and the Administration to pass a federal tax credit to encourage charitable giving to state non-profits who will provide scholarships for eligible children to attend the school of their parents’ choice… I was incredibly happy to see Denisha Merriweather sitting in the Executive Gallery with First Lady Melania Trump at the joint session tonight. As the President mentioned in his speech, Denisha used a tax credit scholarship in Florida and has become a true American success story due to the program. She exemplifies the power of choice in education.”

Despite that 90 percent of American children and adolescents attend public schools and that many of those students have their own success stories, we are being drilled by the Trump administration on a one-note school policy—freedom of choice for parents. Personal freedom and privatization are the key ideas. There seems to be no recognition that public schools are the system most likely to be able to serve the needs of the whole range of our children. Nor do Trump and DeVos appear to worry about protecting the rights of children by law and through transparent, democratic governance—protections absent from private schools. It is ironic that the people in charge of the federal department designed to support the education of all American children are endorsing a lifeboat strategy—vouchers,  tax credits and charters—that by its very structure can serve only some students. Public schools, of course, are required by law to serve all students.

On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos herself attracted enormous attention in the press for her awkward and ignorant effort to promote her one-note education idea when she complimented historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—as exemplars of school choice.  She failed to indicate that she has any real understanding of the role of these institutions during a period of our history when black students were entirely shut out of higher education at all white colleges and universities.

Congressman John Conyers from Michigan, DeVos’s home state, responded: “Let’s be clear, HBCUs were started because of Jim Crow laws. Black students did not ‘choose’ HBCUs over the all-white colleges—they were barred from attending due to their race.  This statement by Mrs. DeVos reveals either a stunning ignorance of history on the part of the person tasked with overseeing our nation’s education system, or an inability to acknowledge our nation’s shameful history of racial discrimination in education, both public and private… Yesterday’s attempt to whitewash the stain of segregation into an argument for privatizing our public schools is perhaps a new low in her current position.”

Expanding Vouchers and Charter Schools Won’t Address Needs of Homeless Children

The November election and the focus of news reporting on President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees have made invisible some of the important challenges for children and their public schools. Those of us concerned about the nation’s roughly 90,000 public schools must, of course, pay attention to Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and we must come to understand how her beliefs and experience are likely to affect the Department of Education and the schools across America’s neighborhoods.

But anybody who believes that the DeVos-Trump plan for a $20 billion block grant program to expand vouchers and charters will solve the primary challenges for public schools is dreaming. School teachers, social workers and counselors must help children cope with their life circumstances in order that students can learn. Public schools must be equipped to address the needs of the children who walk trough their doors.

The NY Times‘ Kate Taylor reminds us about one of these primary challenges: students “living in a shelter, doubled up with relatives, in a hotel or in other transient circumstances.”  In the New York City Schools, which serve over a million students, a serious problem is that severely disadvantaged students tend to be clustered in the city’s traditional public schools, not in its charters.  Taylor explains: “Last year, 99,196 students in the city’s traditional public schools, or nearly 10 percent of students, were classified as being in temporary housing…. At the same time, 6,249, or roughly 7 percent, in city charter schools were in temporary housing.”

Here is how Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond defines “severe deprivation,” the living conditions of many of these homeless children: “By ‘severe deprivation,’ we mean economic hardship that is (1) acute, (2) compounded, and (3) persistent. Let us unpack these three components. Acute hardship: Life far below the poverty line, characterized by a scarcity of critical resources and material hardship…  Compounded hardship: ‘Poverty plus,’ or correlated and compounded adversity. This idea speaks to the clustering of different kinds of disadvantage across multiple dimensions (psychological, social, material) and institutions (work, family, prison)… Persistent hardship: Enduring disadvantage often stubbornly impervious to change.”

Taylor documents the scope of the challenge across the regional sub-school districts in New York, a huge city where rents have skyrocketed: “(I)n at least 21 of the 29 geographic school districts in the city that have charters, every charter had a lower percentage of students in temporary housing last year than the average among the traditional public schools in the same district. In District 9 in the Bronx, for example, which had the highest concentration of students in temporary housing, 23 percent of students in the traditional public schools were in temporary housing last year…. Most charters there had percentages of homeless students in the single digits.  Icahn Charter School 6 and South Bronx Classical Charter III had the highest percentage, 12 percent.”

“Students in temporary housing often struggle academically,” writes Taylor. “According to a report on New York City from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, a policy research organization, students in temporary housing are nearly twice as likely to be chronically absent—meaning they miss at least 20 days of school—as students who are not homeless. They are also nearly three times as likely to transfer schools midyear, and they have much lower rates of academic proficiency.”

The fact that these students’ families frequently move from place to place is described by Taylor as the primary reason fewer homeless students are enrolled in charter schools. The life circumstances of these children make it virtually impossible for many of them to participate in the lotteries by which charter schools select their students: “The major cause of the disparity, most people agree, is the way charter schools admit students. By law, charter schools admit students by lottery, and most hold their lotteries in April. Many receive more applicants than they have seats available. So if a family moves between April and September, or in the middle of the school year, and is looking for a school seat in a new neighborhood, they will often be unable to get one in a charter. District schools, in contrast, more easily allow children to move between them.”

Taylor adds that some charter schools are increasingly setting aside seats for students whose families struggle to find housing, though it is rare to find charter schools that embrace the challenge of serving a large number of homeless children. “At least one charter school in the city gives a preference to homeless students: Mott Haven Academy, in the South Bronx, which was started by the New York Foundling, a social services agency. Children in foster care get priority for a third of the seats while students who are living in shelters or whose families have an open case with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services get priority for another third.”

The challenge for any school serving homeless children is that students experiencing severe deprivation have enormous needs. As such children become increasingly concentrated in traditional neighborhood schools, which must then hire social workers and other support staff, the fiscal burden on the school district grows. And as our society judges schools by their students’ aggregate test scores, we tend to identify schools with concentrations of very poor and homeless children as “failing” schools.

In its excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, the Consortium on Chicago School Research documented the challenges for schools in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty: “An endemic concern for urban schoolteachers are the students in their classrooms with extraordinary personal and social needs. Many urban children live under unstable home and community circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. In such circumstances, a most basic need for healthy child development—stable, dependable relationships with caring adults— may not always be present… At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused….” (pp. 172-173)

Our society is called to respond to the needs of educators serving students in circumstances of severe deprivation. Redirecting federal funding to expand the use of vouchers and charters cannot address these challenges, particularly if, as some have suggested, the money will come from Title I, whose very purpose is to provide additional federal support for schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods.