By Bob Sanchez, JMI Policy Director
Posted January 24, 2012
With bipartisan support, parents in many states are winning an enhanced right to choose the schools that they believe will not only give their children the best chance to succeed academically, but will also surround their children in a safe and nurturing environment rather than a battle zone. In honor of National School Choice Week (Jan. 22-28), the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has chronicled these successes in a new edition of its annual progress report, ABCs of School Choice. The Foundation describes the publication as “the comprehensive guide to school choice programs throughout the United States.”In a press release, the Foundation’s President/CEO Robert Enlow observes that “When it comes to school choice, the tide of reform is rising. Last year we saw unprecedented progress for school choice, and as 2012 kicks off with National School Choice Week, we expect this year to be just as successful.” Unfortunately, the very success of the school choice movement has stirred a pushback from opponents, notably the teachers unions. In particular they’ve been filing lawsuits against voucher programs that enable parents to choose any school, public or private, faith-based or strictly secular.One weapon they’re using is the so-called Blaine Amendment, which appears in the state constitutions of Florida and 36 other states. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs enabling pupils to attend private schools – including those operated by religious organizations – do not violate the U.S. Constitution, some states’ interpretations of the Blaine Amendment could stand in the way of school choice. So it’s instructive to note the embarrassing origins of the Blaine Amendment. Herewith a bit of history that I recounted in an op-ed column recently published in the Tallahassee Democrat: The amendment “was named for James G. Blaine of Maine, 1884’s GOP presidential nominee. He narrowly lost to Grover Cleveland after an especially divisive campaign. It famously included a Blaine supporter’s quip that the Democrats were the party of ‘rum, Romanism, and rebellion.’ The ‘Romanism’ was an obvious attempt to harness the anti-Catholic calumny that Catholics owed more loyalty to the pope than to theU.S. “The Blaine Amendment almost became a part of the U.S. Constitution, passing in the U.S. House in 1875, when Blaine was Speaker, but failing in the Senate. Unfortunately, 37 states – including Florida– soon incorporated the Blaine wording into their state constitutions as a wave of immigrants from Catholic countries fed an anti-Catholic backlash.“Of course, the Blaine Amendment’s wording offers no clue as to its origins in religious bigotry. Instead, it sounds like a mere expansion of the U.S. Constitution’s provision forbidding an establishment of religion. In Florida’s Constitution it reads, ‘No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.’“The 2011 Florida Legislature passed a resolution for a constitutional amendment to remove this relic of post-Civil War bigotry from Florida’s Constitution. The proposal may be on the ballot next November so Floridians may vote on it – or maybe not. Ironically, the Florida Education Association and other groups that have blasted the Legislature for allegedly trying to ‘suppress the vote’ now want to go well beyond suppressing the vote; they want to totally block a vote on this proposal…. Thus far they’ve succeeded in getting a Tallahassee circuit judge to toss the measure off the ballot because they deemed its wording “misleading.” This triggered a new process wherein Florida’s attorney general got a chance to do a rewrite, and she did.“Meanwhile, what the teachers unions apparently fear is that removing this wording from Florida’s Constitution might clear the way for more school vouchers, allowing parents to send their kids to schools whose teachers aren’t necessarily unionized. What a shame that the main impetus for keeping this relic of post-Civil War anti-Catholic bigotry in Florida’s Constitution is coming from a union purporting to represent the people who teach our kids.”The Florida Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether Florida voters will get a chance in November to delete the Blaine Amendment from the state Constitution. If that happens, then Floridians will have more reason to celebrate when School Choice Week rolls around next year.