Blaine Amendment loses its luster as block to education choice

For years, the Idaho Legislature has looked at, and rejected, a variety of proposals intended to allow a panoply of private school options for children trapped in failing public schools. Predictably, reform-leery legislators have often ducked under the cover of the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment. Soon they might not be able to do so.

Idaho Freedom Foundation executive director Wayne Hoffman

A product of 19th-century religious intolerance that sought to stifle Catholic education, the Blaine Amendment, here and in the constitutions of more than three dozen other states, prohibits the use of taxpayer money for religious schools. But, thanks to U.S. Supreme Court rulings on June 26 and 27, the amendment is in trouble.

In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that the state of Missouri could not deny funding to a private non-profit just because it is religious. In that case, Trinity Lutheran Church tried accessing a state grant fund, intended to help any of Missouri’s non-profit organizations, to add rubberized surfaces to their playgrounds. The church applied and scored well on its application, but the state rejected the grant award because of Missouri’s constitutional prohibition on taxpayer funding for religious institutions. The church argued that such a denial violated the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion protections and sued.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling stopped short of overturning Blaine amendments or allowing taxpayer resources, for example, to pay a kid’s private school tuition. However, in a separate case, the U.S. Supreme Court has asked Colorado’s high court to reexamine a local school district scholarship program that benefits some kids who attend faith-based schools. The Colorado court blocked the program because of that state’s Blaine Amendment language.

So now, back to Idaho. Most of the time, the opposition to full-on education choice in Idaho has circled around the Blaine Amendment. In the 1970s, Rep. Maurice Clements, R-Nampa, offered a proposal to create a school voucher program. Clements, a friend of mine in his later years, was not an openly religious man, but he maintained that families shouldn’t be forced to pay taxes for a bad education and then find themselves unable to afford private school tuition because they had spent all their money with the public school district. The voucher was a free market approach to education, and Clements believed such should appeal to Idaho’s Republican-majority solons. It didn’t.

Clements was rebuffed so badly that he resigned from the Legislature. Since then, other proposals have been offered, all equally banished from consideration and burned at the stake as some sort of constitutional blasphemy. The latest school choice iteration sweeping the country, the Empowerment Savings Account, has been deemed dead on arrival here as an affront to Idaho’s Blaine Amendment.

For the last couple of years, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, has introduced legislation to repeal the Blaine bigotry, to no avail.

The Supreme Court’s rulings are just the beginning. More lawsuits are expected to clarify the meaning and extent of the rulings. Meanwhile, school choice advocates nationwide expect to advance legislation intended to push the historical boundaries of education choice.

Idaho should push the education choice boundaries, too. Additionally, legislators and candidates for the Legislature, and for governor and state school superintendent, should be on notice that they’ll be asked where they stand on education choice now that they can no longer run and hide behind the Blaine Amendment.

Written by Wayne Hoffman, the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

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