U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has had difficulty selling her school choice agenda in Washington, railed against state constitutional prohibitions on public funds going to faith-based institutions, in a recent speech to a Roman Catholic organization.
The target of DeVos’ wrath: so-called “Blaine” amendments to state constitutions that prohibit public funds from being used for religious purposes. DeVos said those amendments, many of which originated in the late 1800s, began as “bigoted” against Catholics.
“These Blaine provisions prohibit taxpayer funding of ‘sectarian'—a euphemism at that time for ‘Catholic'—activities, even when they serve the public good,” DeVos said, according to prepared remarks of the speech to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which is affiliated with the Archdiocese of New York. “Activities like addiction recovery, hospice care, or—the amendments’ primary target—parochial education.”
Those amendments are still on the books in 37 states, DeVos said in her May 16 address. And though she didn’t mention it in her speech, that includes her home state of Michigan. Back in 2000, DeVos helped lead an effort to change the state’s constitution to allow for school vouchers. It failed.
She added that “there’s hope that Blaine amendments won’t be around much longer.” Last year, she said, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a state-funded playground-restoration program in Columbia, Mo., to exclude a facility on the grounds of a church. (That case is Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer.) School choice advocates are hoping that ruling will prod state lawmakers to re-examine Blaine amendments.
“These amendments should be assigned to the ash heap of history, and this ‘last acceptable prejudice’ should be stamped out once and for all,” DeVos said.
But Maggie Garrett, the legislative director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit organization in Washington, has a different take on the state constitutional amendments, which she referred to as “no aid” clauses.
“Like with many things, Betsy Devos has her facts wrong,” Garrett said. “It’s a simplistic and inaccurate view of the history. There were many reasons why people supported no-aid clauses, many of them were legitimate.” And she noted that states continue to support such amendments. Recently, for instance, Oklahoma tried to strike its clause through a state referendum, but the effort was resoundingly defeated.
Moreover, Garrett said that DeVos is “overstating” the impact of the Trinity Lutheran decision, which, in Garrett’s view, applies narrowly to playground resurfacing.
DeVos and her team have had a hard time getting Congress on board with school choice initiatives, including a recent budget pitch for a new $250 million new voucher program and a behind-the-scenes push to include a federal tax-credit scholarship program in recent tax-overhaul legislation. The tax-credit scholarship would have allowed individuals and corporations to get a tax break for donating to so-called scholarship-granting organizations.
Passing on Impact Aid
DeVos has recently shifted her focus—at least rhetorically—to a new idea for expanding choice: allowing students of military personnel to access Education Savings Accounts or ESAs. Such accounts can be used for a range of services, including private school tuition, dual-enrollment courses, or tutoring.
But the Trump administration does not support a proposal currently pending in Congress to use a portion of Impact Aid program funding to help expand school choice to military-connected children, DeVos said in testifying before the House Education and the Workforce Committee May 22.
The proposal, introduced by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and GOP Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tim Scott of South Carolina, faces stiff opposition from advocates for school districts and military families. And it is likely to stumble in Congress, where the $1.3 billion Impact Aid program enjoys bipartisan support.
Impact Aid is used to help school districts make up for a federal presence, such as a Native American reservation or military base. Under Banks’ proposal, which is based on a paper written by the conservative Heritage Foundation, part of the funding would instead flow directly to families in the form of ESAs.
Banks had planned to introduce the bill as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is up for debate in Congress soon. Supporters, including the Heritage Foundation, say the legislation would expand education options to an important population of students and would help increase military-retention rates.
But detractors, including the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, worry that the proposal could divert as much as $450 million from Impact Aid.
That would generate “unprecedented uncertainty” for federally impacted schools, the impacted schools association wrote in a recent report. “The potential for such a significant funding reduction would severely hinder a school district’s ability to maintain the staff, programs, services, and infrastructure necessary to support military-connected students, a vast majority of whom are educated in public school districts.”
During the hearing, DeVos committed to working with Banks and others on another vehicle for offering school choice to military families.
During the hearing, DeVos did not mention a particular piece of legislation that she thought would work for expanding choice to military-connected children. But in the past, she said another bill introduced by Scott was worth a look. That legislation would create a school choice pilot program on several military bases, using Pentagon funding.
Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, is championing the Banks legislation. But it hasn’t taken a position on Scott’s other bill, said Dan Holler, a vice president at Heritage Action.
Another possibility for extending choice to military students: Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would set up a small, pilot scholarship program for special-needs children of military personnel.
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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2018 edition of Education Week as State Restrictions on School Choice Earn Ed. Sec.'s Ire