So-called “Blaine amendments” are changes made to state constitutions around the turn of the 19th – 20th century which prohibited public dollars being used for “sectarian” or religious schools. The amendments were born of the rampant anti-Catholic bigotry of the era – this wasn’t so long after the era of the Know Nothing party – and was intended to stop the spread of Catholic schools across the nation.
In the Mitchell vs. Helms Supreme Court ruling, Blaine amendments were described as a “doctrine born of bigotry.” In Locke vs. Davey, while the Supreme Court upheld a state prohibition of public funds for religious schools, they also found Blaine amendments “have been linked with anti-Catholicism.”
North Dakota’s state constitution has a Blaine amendment. Article VIII, Section 1, of the state constitution says the state’s “system of public schools” shall be “free from sectarian control.” Further, Section 5 reads “No money raised for the support of the public schools of the state shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.”
This issue came up during the debate over Rep. Mark Dosch’s school choice proposal. Dosch told me in an interview that he feels his bill was constitutional even given the language mentioned above, but it’s clear that as long as this sort of language is in the state constitution passing school choice policies will be difficult.
To that end, Rep. Bette Grande has introduced a constitutional amendment that would remove the language:
BISMARCK, N.D. (GPN) – A lawmaker wants to erase language in North Dakota’s constitution that bars taxpayer aid for religious schools.
The constitution says state money can’t support “sectarian” schools. Fargo Rep. Bette Grande says the phrase goes back to North Dakota’s statehood.
She says at the time, many states put language into their constitutions to block state aid to Roman Catholic schools. The rules were called the “Blaine amendment.” Grande says it’s a remnant of anti-Catholic bigotry, and it should be taken out of North Dakota’s constitution.
Of course, public school proponents are all for keeping this bigoted anachronism in our constitution, as long as it keeps them from having to compete with private schools:
However – public school advocates say they oppose giving taxpayer money to private schools.
Bismarck school superintendent Tamara Uselman says private schools can be selective in accepting students. She says they also don’t have to obey the public disclosure requirements that come with taxpayer support.
The debate over school choice isn’t about which is better, public schools or private schools. The debate over school choice is about parents being able to choose for themselves which sort of school works best for their children.
It’s time to clear this language out of the state constitution so that the state can have an honest, straight-forward debate about school choice without it being colored by bigotry from a by-gone age.