The Blaine Game (Updated)


Way back in 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant called for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public money for “sectarian” purposes. 

The idea of free public schools wasn’t new, but neither was it universal. And it wasn’t unheard of for various state governments to support education provided through religious institutions. It was working, and seemed practical at one time, so why not?

Republican Congressman James G. Blaine was happy to comply and proposed such an amendment. It came close to passage, but fell just short and never became law. 

Over time, however, various Supreme Court rulings essentially codified the same principle. It’s a tricky balance sometimes (should states help Catholic schools buy Algebra textbooks?), but generally the separation between church and state is assumed in most circumstances – including school funding. 

Most states – including Oklahoma – were less ambivalent, and have language similar to Blaine’s original proposal in their state constitutions, often informally referenced as ‘the Blaine Amendment’. For example, Article 2, Section 5 of Oklahoma’s constitution says this:

No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.

That language, along with Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment over the years, is why we can’t have a 10 Commandments monument on capitol grounds. It’s also why ESAs/vouchers are unconstitutional– even those currently hidden behind the shield of ‘special needs’. 

The courts haven’t agreed with me on that one yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. 

Diverse FaithsReligious diversity in the United States has expanded considerably since 1875, making the distinction between faith and politics even more appropriate. Disputes which used to involve whether or not copper buttons on your coat would cost you your eternal soul now seem quaint compared to disagreements over which god is the “real” one, or what caliber Jesus would use to eliminate children of other faiths.  

It can get personal.

For people of relatively orthodox faith in Oklahoma, this increasing diversity looks and feels very much like their fundamental beliefs and lifestyles are under some sort of attack. What used to be assumed is now suddenly controversial, and traditions which used to bind communities together are now accused of being dangerous and wrong-headed. 

Take a moment and appreciate how disturbing this is to someone not quite so detached and smugly intellectual as those on the opposite extreme. These aren’t bad people, for the most part – they’re just a little freaked out and worried about the world in which their kids are growing up.

Unfortunately, politics and pragmatism rarely allow for such reflection. Decisions must be made and funds allocated. “Blaine Amendment” or not, there are currently two pathways by which Oklahoma parents can procure state support to send their child to a private school – even a “sectarian” one.  

Philanthropy ManThe first is the “Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship.” This was authored by Senator Dan Newberry (R) and signed into law by Governor Fallin in 2011. 

The OEOES gives individuals and businesses a 50% tax credit for contributions made to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to students whose parents want them in private schools. Students must live in a district labeled 'Yucky Doo-Doo Heads' or worse by the state’s A-F School Shaming System (even if they've never actually attended public school in that district) OR live in a household “in which the total annual income during the preceding tax year does not exceed an amount equal to three hundred percent (300%) of the income standard used to qualify for a free or reduced school lunch… “

Threefold the reduced lunch threshold isn’t hardcore poverty by any stretch. This means the parents of little Theodore, who’s always gone to Word of Faith of Hope of Grace anyway, can receive financial aid from wealthy donors who will then be significantly reimbursed by taxpayer dollars. 

It’s just indirect enough to pass constitutional muster, and we could quibble over whether or not tax breaks are the same as public support. Right now, however, this is the law. 

Voucher BoyThe second is the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, which seems to be better-known and more widely-utilized. This bill, passed in 2010, allows students who can secure the label “special needs” to take their portion of state funding and attend a private school of their parents’ choice. 

Any student with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) who’s gone to public school in Oklahoma for at least a year OR whose parent is an active-duty member of the armed forces (often moving regularly) is eligible. Once approved, the voucher option continues through high school.

Despite pro-voucher visuals featuring a touching variety of multi-cultural children in wheelchairs and competing in the Special Olympics, it takes much less to qualify for an IEP. Any teacher can tell you the vast majority of mandated modifications are things like “allowed to use a calculator” or “sits near teacher and requires periodic redirection.” 

I’m not trivializing the role of educational modification, but we should be honest about the range of students covered by this language. 

If little Brittany’s parents can convince that 3rd Grade team that she simply MUST be given extra time on her spelling practice, or if Chauncy’s parents secure the tiniest diagnosis from their family doctor regarding his adorable 2nd Grade lisp (the kind assertively featured any time a child under the age of 20 appears in a TV commercial), they then qualify for these ‘special needs’ vouchers all the way up until their admittance letters from Stanford (Daddy's alma mater!) 

The use of this particular ‘scholarship’ in religious schools has been validated by the courts. Several districts challenged this legislation when it first passed, and were demonized for “suing parents of handicapped kids.” The courts determined the schools lacked standing, so other approaches were tried. So far, they've failed. 

I'm happy enough for the parents making good use of this to get a better education for their kids. I really am. 

Private School Kids

Of greater significance, however, is the logistical reality of special needs children in MOST private schools. One of the many freedoms granted non-public institutions of learning is that they don’t have to follow IEPs or accommodations or anything else required of public schools. Ironically, an IEP may be required to GET that funding, but as soon as you’re admitted, it ceases to exist. 

While there are a handful of schools committed to better educating certain types of high-needs children – some of whom do amazing work - the vast majority are rather selective about who they do and don’t accept. Whatever their good intentions, most private schools simply lack the resources to make sure little Gertrude gets specialized attention. If she can’t step up and fit in without disrupting the flow, she’s out

Chances are she’ll never be in to begin with.

High Needs KidsFew parents of a child with substantial needs are likely to have the resources to independently fund that full-time aide to follow them from class to class, or the tutoring they’ll need to master basic math. Public schools can’t afford to do it either, but we do – because it’s the law

Public school educators arguing against vouchers (or ESAs) aren’t doing so out of some twisted venom towards religious instruction (well, some of them might be – but not the rational majority). We’re kicking and screaming because the powers-that-be are manipulating your collective sympathy and desire to do right by kids in order to redirect public funds into the pockets of their chosen favorites – many of whom are perfectly capable of funding their children’s education on their own.

We’re fussing because those who inherited the nicest treehouse keep trying to pull up the ladder so no one else can play, despite the welcome mat hanging from the highest branches and their wailing laments over the ‘choices’ of those still on the ground.

I'm not done with this issue.

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