The Bigotry of Blaine No More

COMMENTARY: U.S. Supreme Court paves the way for parental choice for their children’s education.

James G. Blaine.
James G. Blaine. (photo: Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).)
“And the prohibition before us today burdens not only religious schools but also the families whose children attend or hope to attend them.” — Chief Justice John Roberts

Prayers of thanks, huzzahs and hoorays are being heard across the country since the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court June 30 that it is unconstitutional to discriminate against parents simply because they choose to send their children to a religious school. Wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the 5-4 majority opinion in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, “Drawing on ‘enduring American tradition,’ we have long recognized the rights of parents to direct ‘the religious upbringing’ of their children.”

The decision sent shock waves through the traditional education establishment, which has long maintained that funding should only flow to public schools, regardless of quality or fit to a child, or parental prerogative.

Said American Federation of Teachers union leader Randi Weingarten, on Twitter,

This ruling in the #Espinoza case is a seismic shock that threatens both #PublicEd and religious liberty.

That she or anyone would consider toppling a constitutional provision that was born of bigotry (and at its introduction endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan) a threat to public education is extraordinarily narrow minded, and wrong.

The once-obscure story of Blaine Amendments is now national news, as if we just discovered this blatantly bigoted entry in 37 state constitutions. Named for the 19th-century Congressman James Blaine nearly 150 years ago, the amendment was specifically designed to target and forcibly assimilate new immigrants to the U.S. who held non-Protestant religious beliefs by preventing them from attending their own schools. 

“The wave of Catholic immigration beginning in the mid-nineteenth century challenged this homogenized Protestant public education and sought to reintroduce plurality to the system,” wrote Paul Clement, former solicitor general of the U.S., in his amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the Center for Education Reform.

That such fear over immigration’s impact on Protestant-influenced society would continue for decades, as ever more ethnic groups sought opportunity here, is ironic indeed in today’s context. Many of the very people and groups who call themselves pro-immigration nevertheless filed amicus briefs against Kendra Espinoza’s cause in the U.S. Supreme Court, ignoring that by doing so they were siding with bigotry and against parental rights. The original proposed Blaine Amendment to the U.S. Constitution read:

“[N]o money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect, nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.”

Blaine’s initial attempt would, after losing nationally, prevail in 37 states and deter state policymakers’ serious consideration of educational-choice programs, citing these clauses in their respective state constitutions, even though prior to these amendments education was delivered and supported by a pluralistic array of organizations and individuals. 

The high court’s majority opinion gave a thorough and oft-ignored history lesson, citing numerous past court cases to demonstrate its veracity: 

“In the founding era and the early 19th century, governments provided financial support to private schools, including denominational ones. ‘Far from prohibiting such support, the early state constitutions and statutes actively encouraged this policy.’... After the Civil War, Congress spent large sums on education for emancipated freedmen, often by supporting denominational schools in the South through the Freedmen’s Bureau.”

Let’s remember that it was not until Catholics — and specifically the Irish — began to flood U.S. shores that national leadership sought to confine students to their version of “public schools.”

As celebrated columnist George Will has written, “In the 19th century’s second half, fear and loathing of Catholic immigrants were ubiquitous and forthright. In 1854, Massachusetts’s governor and all but three members of the legislature were members of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party, and the legislature’s Nunnery Committee searched for underground dungeons in convents. Protestantism was effectively a semi-established religion, widely taught in public schools with hymn singing and readings from the King James version of the Bible.”

Thus and since, Blaine sealed U.S. education’s fate as a monolithic system, even as our nation has diversified far beyond what the Know-Nothings originally feared. And today, education suffers from decades of not just discriminatory education practices but housing practices — called redlining — that confines students to education by zip code. Attempts to change that are fought by groups vested in that system and who hide behind Blaine Amendments to preempt parents from making choices out of that system to attend non-public and religious schools.

In this book A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools, Tim DeRoche explores the discriminatory practices that have endured in the decades following Blaine.

“Why are children being assigned to schools at all?” he asks. “Why do we trust an incredibly important decision to a government official? We aren’t assigned to a doctor by the government. Or a hospital. We aren’t assigned where to live [despite the government’s attempts in prior times]. ... But our children are ‘assigned’ to a school when they are five years old. And many lower-income kids of all races find themselves assigned to dysfunctional failing schools with abysmal records of student performance.”

The data is worth reviewing again. Both math and reading assessments have revealed that student achievement has either been flat or dropping for most U.S. students. Between 2017 and 2019, there was no significant change from the prior 2017 assessment in math and marked decreases in reading. Reading scores were lower in more than half of the states at grade 8 since 2017.

According to the associate commissioner of the National Center on Education Statistics, which administers the Nation’s “Report Card,” “... students are struggling to understand and explain the importance of civic participation, how American government functions, the historical significance of events and the need to grasp and apply core geographic concepts.”

So DeRoche, like millions of parents and policymakers, challenges the concept of “education by zip code” — as he should — and believes that “every American parent should be making an active choice about where their children will be educated.”

With the Blaine cloud of bigotry being lifted by the Supreme Court, that pathway is now open.

Jeanne Allen is the founder and CEO of

the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.