Home > Uncategorized > Betsy DeVos + ESAs = End of Blaine Amendments, Siphoning of Public Funds to Religiously Affiliated Schools

Betsy DeVos + ESAs = End of Blaine Amendments, Siphoning of Public Funds to Religiously Affiliated Schools

February 6, 2021

In June, the US Supreme Court overturned a court decision that upheld Montana’s Blaine Amendment prohibiting the use of public funds for religiously affiliated schools. The logic behind the “Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue” ruling was explained in this Wikipedia post:

The ruling effective stated that if the state offered public scholarship funds for a private school, they could not discriminate against religious schools.

The Espinoza case emerged when Montana passed a law offering scholarships to children through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a mechanism whereby wealthy donors can get a tax break by contributing to a “scholarship fund” that parents in the state can assess to enroll their children in private schools that meet the needs of their child more than the public schools. The laws that create these ESAs sound as if they have high-minded intent: they want to give parents a choice for their children who are struggling in their local public school. The argument, however, is disingenuous at best and Machiavellian at worst. Some ESA donors are also investors in for-profit schools that can profit from the “choice” parents make; some donors have strong religious convictions and want to buttress parochial schools or support the opening of “Christian Academies”; and some politicians want to cater to parochial schools parents and Evangelicals who believe that public “government schools” are the root of cultural rot.

Wikipedia dryly noted how the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Espinoza case might play out:

As a result, it is expected that states that have similar programs with no-aid provisions in their constitutions will be forced to re-evaluate any program restrictions

And on cue, three New England states are lining up to take advantage of Espinoza. In Vermont, a lawsuit by parents seeking to use tuition funds for a Catholic school in Burlington is wending its way to the Supreme Court and a similar case in Maine is headed that way. In New Hampshire, the legislature is advancing HB 20, which will enable parents to use funds from the state and funds from an ESA to enroll in any school they wish to attend.

The motives in passing Blaine Amendments were not purely rooted in a desire for non-sectarian schooling. Nativism and anti-Catholic prejudice played a role. But in the 1870s when Blaine Amendments were introduced at the state level, public schools were not wholly free from religious influence: they often incorporated Protestant prayers and the readings were often highly moralistic.

Where and when will it end? The satirical writer in me believes that it will take the opening of a chain of Islamic schools or schools sponsored by witches to help voters come to their senses. In the best of all worlds, voters would want to see unity in their communities and in an effort to create that would believe schools should remain free of all religious affiliation. We are not living in the best of all worlds, though… I only hope we will muddle through.

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