Published Online: October 20, 1999
Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as Public vs. Private

Public vs. Private

As ferocious as today's debate is over private school vouchers, it may be surprising that early in the history of the republic, American religious schools periodically received generous public funding.

By the mid-19th century, however, the great "Schools Question" was tearing at the national social fabric. Now, at the close of the 20th century, the nation is still struggling with the essence of that question: To what extent may, or should, the government provide aid to religious schools or their students?

In the early years of the United States, direct government subsidies for private schools, which were virtually all religious in character, were not uncommon. St. Peter's Roman Catholic Parish in New York City began receiving money from the state school fund in 1806, according to Between Church and State: Religion and Education in a Multicultural America, a new book by historian James W. Fraser. But funding for denominational schools was cut off by the 1820s as the Protestant-dominated Public School Society gained control over the city's public schools.

By the 1870s, though, as their church's influence grew, Catholics were successful in removing Bible reading--usually from the King James version--from the public schools in some cities. Moreover, the New York Archdiocese was receiving public funds again--$700,000 in 1871, according to Steven K. Green, the legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

'Not One Dollar'

Protestant determination strengthened. In 1875, in what was largely an appeal for the Protestant Republican vote as he eyed a bid for a third term, President Ulysses S. Grant gave a famous speech in which he resolved that "not one dollar ... shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian schools."

Another Republican who planned to seek the 1876 presidential nomination, Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, proposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the states from allowing public money to "ever be under the control of any religious sect." The Blaine Amendment fell short in Congress in 1876.

"The movement it propelled, however, would prove to be largely successful," says Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor at New York University who has written frequently about public aid to religious schools.

While Congress didn't muster enough support to amend the U.S. Constitution, it insisted for the next several decades that states entering the Union prohibit public aid to religious schools. Several older states also adopted such provisions, and by 1917, 29 states had Blaine-like language in their constitutions.

"It is one of the great ironies of American constitutional history that the Blaine Amendment, which erupted out of a spirit of religious bigotry and a politics that sought to promote Protestantism in public schools, eventually became an emblem of religious freedom in some states," Viteritti writes.

For example, the federal enabling act that made Arizona a state required a Blaine-like provision in its constitution, and the state's 1910 constitutional convention obliged. Only this year, members of the Arizona Supreme Court vigorously debated the reach of the state constitution's prohibition against public support of religious schools. The court voted 3-2 to uphold a state tax credit for donations to private school scholarship funds that offer tuition aid for religious schools. The U.S. Supreme Court this month declined to hear an appeal of that decision.

The great question of public funding for religious schools was quelled somewhat after the defeat of the federal Blaine Amendment. One liberal Catholic prelate, Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minn., promoted a plan that would have moved Catholic schools and public schools closer together.

Under the so-called Poughkeepsie plan, public school authorities would rent Catholic schools and pay staff salaries for teaching only secular subjects during the regular school day. Religious instruction would be pushed to after- school hours. The archbishop's proposal engendered considerable opposition from conservative Catholics, who, by that time, wanted little to do with the public schools. And only a handful of public school boards, dominated by Protestants, in such cities as Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Florissant, Mo., were willing to go along with it.

Child-Benefit Theory

In the 1920s, the Supreme Court--in Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters-- struck down state laws that were anathema to religious schools, whether by restricting language instruction or seeking to force all children into the public system.

A few years later, in 1930, the high court first enunciated the "child benefit" theory of public aid for religious schools in the somewhat obscure case of Cochran v. Board of Education. In Cochran, the court rejected a challenge to a Louisiana law that made textbooks available to children in both public and parochial schools.

The true recipients of the aid were the children, the court reasoned, and it was students and the state that benefited from the appropriation.

States and school districts where Catholics exercised considerable political influence soon began to experiment with new forms of indirect aid. In New Jersey, a state law that allowed districts to pay the transportation costs of all pupils, including those in religious schools, led to the 1947 Supreme Court decision in Everson v. Board of Education. The court upheld the law, but its 5-4 decision came in a series of complex opinions. "The court's signal to the nation was less than clear" about what forms of aid to religious schools might be permissible under the Constitution, historian Fraser says.

Many Catholics had high hopes that with the election of John F. Kennedy as president in 1960, the federal government might get involved in aiding parochial schools. But early in his quest for the presidency, the Catholic candidate had to dispel fears that he would promote a religious agenda if he became the first of his faith to win the White House.

"There can be no question of federal funds being used for support of parochial or private schools," Kennedy told Look magazine in 1959.

When Kennedy proposed a package of federal education legislation, private schools were left out. It was his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who deftly brought together public school groups and religious school leaders in support of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which guaranteed remedial aid for poor children regardless of the school they attended.

Beginning in the late 1960s and continuing into the '70s, a wave of cases dealing with various state plans for aiding religious schools came before the Supreme Court.

The loan of textbooks was--again--upheld. But salary supplements for parochial school teachers, state aid for repairing religious school facilities, tuition reimbursement for private school parents, and the provision of nontextbook instructional materials were among the forms of aid struck down.

In 1985, the court also barred public school teachers from providing federally funded remedial classes on the premises of religious schools. That decision would be reversed a dozen years later by a more conservative court.

Tax Credits and Vouchers

Beginning in 1983 with the Supreme Court's decision upholding a tuition tax credit for all parents, including those who sent their children to religious schools, the tide began to shift.

The idea of private-school-tuition vouchers as a market force that might improve public education began with the economist Milton Friedman in the '50s. But in many towns in Maine and Vermont, an early, small-scale version of vouchers called "tuitioning" had been in use for more than a century.

Vermont's tuitioning program, in which towns without high schools paid the private school tuition of their residents, even covered religious schools until 1961, when the state supreme court limited it to secular private schools.

Much larger voucher experiments in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and, most recently, Florida have sparked the latest strife over aid to religious schools. Proponents argue that vouchers that give parents the freedom to choose where to send their children do not have a primary purpose of aiding religious schools. Opponents contend that the money still ends up in the religious school coffers--thus violating the First Amendment ban on a government establishment of religion--and that vouchers will undermine the public school system.

Though the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that upheld the Milwaukee voucher plan, the justices have yet to weigh in definitively on such programs. Most observers believe the court will take up the issue within the next few years.

Meanwhile, the court in its 1999-2000 term will hear a major case from Louisiana concerning a federal program that provides computers and other technological forms of aid to religious schools. The court has been swamped with briefs, including some that mention the 19th-century war over school aid in New York City, the Blaine Amendment, and the high court's long history of cases addressing different forms of aid.

The nation has not yet resolved the great Schools Question.

PHOTO: Many Catholics had high hopes for gaining federal aid when John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency. But early in his campaign, the Democrat declared that no federal money would go to support private schools. Above, photographer Don Phelan and his family watch one of the historic debates between Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
—Corbis-Bettmann
PHOTO: Oregon's Hill Military Academy, a private, nonsectarian school, joined with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in challenging the 1922 law that essentially sought to eliminate private education in the state.
—Corbis/National ArchivesOregon Historical Society

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Pages 32-33

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