The ongoing controversy over school choice began more than 100 years ago with an amendment to prohibit public aid to religious schools
In his autobiography, Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’ This is true for teachers, and usually on a far larger scale, for politicians as well. The legacy of James Blaine's effect on education is an unfortunate example.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1830, Blaine died in Washington, D.C., in 1893. In the interim he was himself briefly a teacher in Kentucky, following which he returned to Pennsylvania, and subsequently moved to Maine, which became the base for his political career. That included serving as speaker of the house at both the state and national level and nearly being elected president of the United States in 1884.
In addition, he twice served as U.S. secretary of state and the Concise Dictionary of American Biography says his “permanent influence was through his foreign policy.’ Not quite.
Neither that work, nor most other history books, mention what has been the most significant impact of his political career, one that, unfortunately, is still with us—in the form of what are termed “Blaine Amendments.’
The 19th century saw the emergence of the public school movement, which was accompanied in mid-century by a surge of immigration, notably from Ireland and Germany. The Irish, of course, were Catholics, but so were many of the Germans, unlike the earlier arrivals from that nation, such as the Amish and the Pennsylvania Dutch.
As the speaker of the house, Blaine proposed an amendment to prohibit public aid to religious schools, something that had been commonly accepted until then. But, until then, those schools were overwhelmingly Protestant.
Congress rejected the idea, but anti-Catholic bigotry was so strong at the time that many states put the proposal in their constitutions, where it remains in various forms, some more stringent than others.
Most of the ongoing controversy about full school choice thus began with Blaine, not the founding fathers or the original adoption of the U.S. Constitution and/or the Bill of Rights including the First Amendment. With the passage of time, the idea has acquired a life of its own and its birth in bigotry has been forgotten.
Blaine himself paid a high price for his attitude. In the 1884 presidential election, when Blaine was the Republican nominee, a Blaine supporter, New York Presbyterian minister Samuel Burchard, said the Democratic Party was for “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.’ Blaine's failure to disassociate himself adequately from that remark cost him the state of New York, and the presidency.
The single greatest threat to national prosperity and stability comes from the inadequacy of much of the public schooling process.
Yet Blaine's effect on eternity lives on, for which we pay the price. Despite the First Amendment's wording that “Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” we are the only Western democracy that, in effect, prohibits individuals from having their children receive the education of their choice unless they have the means to pay for it twice— once in taxes and once in tuition.
John Coons has written that: “The machinery of public monopoly was chosen specifically by Brahmins like Horace Mann and James Blaine to coax the children of immigrants from the religious superstition of their barbarian parents. Today, that antique machinery continues its designated role, and if this function was ever benign, it has long since ceased to be so. What has endured is the public school system's peculiar legacy of intolerance, racial segregation, religious bigotry, discrimination against the poor… [and] the careful buffering of the freedom of the rich to decide for themselves.’
Thomas Jefferson said every generation, while it might respect tradition, should be able to decide its own destiny and not be burdened by the dead hand of the past. He suggested generations should average about 19 years.
In the entire history of this nation, no one has seriously suggested that we have a nationally established Church, and now there isn't the slightest possibility that it could ever be done. It isn't the establishment of religion that should concern us. The single greatest threat to national prosperity and stability comes from the inadequacy of much of the public schooling process. Correcting this depends to a large extent on a freedom of choice, basic to our democracy, but which is still blocked by today's more subtle, but no less harmful, expressions of religious bigotry.
The systematic removal of Blaine amendments would go a long way toward moving us in the right direction.
Dave Kirkpatrick is a Distinguished Fellow with the Blum Center at Marquette University. Reprinted with permission from Crisis in Education.