The Catholic Thing
School Choice as Social Justice Print E-mail
By Kristina Johannes   
Monday, 08 April 2013

I’ve always relished the family lore that had us related to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Alas, my genealogical research has yet to uncover a connection to this famous patriot, but my personal interest in Charles’ history has given me a front row seat into the anti-Catholic thread in the warp and woof of our country’s founding.  

The general public has little appreciation for the effect this anti-Catholic history has had on the development of our politics, especially with regard to education.  Indeed, even many Catholics are unaware that a majority of states have a bias on this matter written into their very constitutions. These “Baby Blaines” as they are sometimes called, have various wordings but share one thing in common – prohibitions against public funding of “sectarian” education, “sectarian” being a code word for “Catholic” once upon a time.

James G. Blaine, a congressman from Maine, introduced the original Blaine Amendment in 1875. History is not clear on whether Blaine himself was anti-Catholic or just trying to capitalize on the electoral culture of the time to advance his political aspirations. Perhaps the latter since he had Catholics among his family members. Fortunately, the amendment failed, but only by a whisker. 

The reason it came so close to passing was due to the widespread sentiment against the Catholic immigrants arriving on U. S. shores during that period. Since public schools were effectively Protestant institutions supported by public dollars, Catholics understandably wanted an educational system of their own. This resulted in Catholics being seen as separating themselves from the common public good and suspicions were easily enflamed regarding loyalty to their new country. The miter-alligators-climbing-out-of-the-swamp cartoon is a classic illustration of this era’s fears about Catholics.

Following the failure of the Blaine Amendment at the national level, proponents focused on the states. Their success can be seen in the number of state constitutions that incorporate versions of the Blaine Amendment

Fast forward to 2013 and school choice has once again come to the fore for many reasons, not least the academic and moral concerns parents have for their children. But many would-be reformers are running into the brick wall of state constitutions.  In most cases, parental choice is a nonstarter until the restrictive language can be altered through a constitutional amendment. 

       Blaine: a failure with an odious legacy

Catholics have many reasons to join these efforts. Vatican II’s Gravissimum Educationis, confirms not only the natural duties and rights of parents regarding school choice, but also the obligation of government to facilitate it: 

Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.  Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children.

This passage encompasses in summary form the whole issue of school choice and why it should be fostered. Rarely, however, is parental choice seen as the social justice issue that it is. Instead, what we hear is the old argument that parents who choose parochial or other private schools are separating themselves from the public – and by extension – the common good; an argument that even the Ku Klux Klan used to its advantage in the 1920s.

Those who venture into this battle, however, had better gird their loins, because the anti-Catholicism that permeated our country at its founding has today morphed into anti-religious sentiment in general.

Comments by opponents are sometimes unbelievable. My personal favorite is the commentator who rejected school choice because he didn’t want to support any school that taught that Jesus rode on a dinosaur. With remarks like this, it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

The common theme among opponents is the separation of church and state, but as these things go, misinformation is the strategy of choice. Fortunately the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman, clarified how to set up a system of school choice that does not violate the establishment clause.

Dennis Fradley, an Alaskan who favors school choice, has done an excellent job responding to the critics. Anyone contemplating involvement in combating state Blaine amendments ought to read him first, no matter the state.

The main misconception shared by opponents is the idea that public schools are morally and academically neutral. They show zero recognition that teaching a child that Heather has two mommies or that the use of a condom is an example of responsible sexual practice is to take a particular stand on morality that is nowhere near neutral.   

It all puts me in mind of Benedict XVI’s remark in Light of the World, “no one should be forced to live according to the ‘new religion’ as though it alone were definitive and obligatory for all mankind.” Indeed.

Kristina Johannes is a registered nurse and a certified teacher of natural family planning. She has served as a spokeswoman for the Alaska Family Coalition, which successfully worked for passage of the marriage amendment to the Alaska Constitution.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (20)Add Comment
written by Gian, April 08, 2013
A secular state can hardly be expected to subsidise Catholic education and neither would the Church be wise to take the state money.

And will you be happy if the state subsidise also the Hindu schools or the Wiccan schools?

Truly the parents should choose the education for their children by their conscience but the very fact that they distrust public education means that they are alienated from the national mainstream. And then the alienated citizens can hardly expect the State to fund a futher alienation.

Make no mistake: to the State-particularly the miltantly secular state, the demand for public funding of parochial education is subversive. And to raise such a demand in this time with attacks on already established religious institutes is unrealistic.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, April 08, 2013
Jules Ferry, the founder of the modern French public school system, widely imitated throughout Europe, was simply more candid than most politicians, when he said the public school’s purpose was “to cast the country’s youth in the same mould and to stamp them, like the currency, with the image of the republic.”
written by Sue, April 08, 2013
What Gian said.

Those who pay the piper call the tune, and there are too many bureaucrats calling the tune for "Catholic" institutions already. You can (and probably should) exercise school choice by homeschooling. As a taxpayer, I'm tired of paying school taxes to subsidize families who could be homeschooling. Like soup kitchens, let's leave educational subsidies to only the neediest.

Yes, it does really help to have an intact, two-parent family to homeschool. That should become a priority item on the individual Catholic's agenda.
written by maineman, April 08, 2013
I fear Gian may be right. This is, however, the second column in three days at TCT about the aggressive hegemony of the secular-humanists and how they have systematically supplanted the more successful enterprises of the church with mechanistic, ultimately failed systems and the seeds of psychosocial and cultural demise.

The flaw may be to think that the march of such nihilism can be slowed by reliance on the political mechanisms that have become the vectors for the spread of the state religion in the first place. Legislation will likely only be a help following the collapse of the house of cards we've been building since the so-called enlightenment.

Let me suggest, instead, efforts to hasten the fall of the tower of destruction. Starve the beast. Make less money and pay less taxes, educate your children at home, even if it means getting sent to jail or fined as a consequence, stop funding filth by purchasing and watching cable TV, perform true acts of love and charity with your time and money, ignore insane mandates of modernity like legalized drugs and the demoralization of marriage, pray for those who can't or won't . . . .

In short, refuse to live the lie, witness to the faith in whatever way you can.
written by Mack Hall, April 08, 2013
Voting in my local school board election is a lonely experience. Democracy is not a spectator sport.
written by Tom, April 08, 2013
Gian and company are spot on. Given recent trends in the law, I think the Church should be weary of its continued 'dance' with the State. Arguments are already being made along those lines: any type of assistance, or dependency, however slight, is being used as an 'entering wedge' to argue that the Church therefore must abide State laws. And we all know what that means: 'anti-discrimination' laws et al. The sooner Catholic institutions stop partnering with the State, the better.
written by Brian English, April 08, 2013
"And will you be happy if the state subsidise also the Hindu schools or the Wiccan schools?"

If their parents want them to go there, sure. The idea is to let the parents choose. And I can tell you from first-hand experience that many Hindu parents do not send their children to Hindu schools (if such a thing even exists)-- they send them to Catholic schools.

And this concept I see expressed by some Catholics--"We don't want any of the State's dirty money"-- is really self-defeating. It is not the State's money; it is our money. Just surrendering and letting the State keep the money to indoctrinate more children is an abdication of our responsibilities as Catholics and citizens.

written by Henry Elden, April 08, 2013
As much as I appreciate the sentiments in Kristina's column, I must say that I whinced when hearing prayers for paroch-aid at the Mass petitions back in the 70's. This with having 12 years of religious schooling. Just how has the Catholic culture's electorate supported the not-quite-so-big-more responsible government in the past election? It is a big reason why we can consider ourselves losers today.
written by Mark, April 08, 2013
Gian wrote, "A secular state can hardly be expected to subsidise Catholic education and neither would the Church be wise to take the state money."

It's not the state's money. The state confiscates money from private citizens, and then dictates the choices those citizens have among options paid for with the confiscated money.
written by Sue, April 08, 2013
To those who say it's not the state's money because they confiscated it: tell the State to give it back to those confiscees, not redistribute it to government school denizens who just want a cheap (or free) babysitter. Parochial and charter schools who take the money are just remaking themselves into government drone schools.

That's how higher ed got so dumbed down and cheapened. It's all in direct proportion to Uncle Sam subsidy. Party's over.
written by kristinajohannes, April 08, 2013
Gian, perhaps you wrote your question too quickly because I doubt you are in favor of denying parental rights to parents who are not Catholic! That would be a little like saying that God should only send children to Catholic parents, because it is from God Himself that we parents derive our rights.
At any rate I am well aware of the potential pitfalls. They don’t change the fact that this is at base a simple matter of natural rights and justice as the Church points out. I see no benefit to allowing the injustice to continue.
The homeschooling movement has shown me the power of parents when they recognize and take back their rights as parents. (I was one for around 20 years.) However, that shouldn’t be the only educational venue in which you get to exercise your rights as a parent.
written by Tony Esolen, April 08, 2013
The money need not go through Washington. All that we would need would be tax forgiveness from our municipalities, to the tune of half of our property taxes, so long as the money was spent for a local school. The rationale is simple -- those people are paying double; they are paying for the public schools through their property taxes; they are paying for the parochial school out of pocket; and they are sparing the district the need to educate their particular children.
written by james gabriel, April 09, 2013
Kristina Johannes reminds us that in the current political context all Christians face opposition from the statist left. The American version of kulturkampf would strangle any Christian attempt to educate children in any significantly integral way. This is, then, a profoundly ecumenical moment when Catholics and other Christians ought to fight for school choice--parochial, independent, charter and homeschooling. America has among its historical strengths a healthy market freedom. For all of us dedicated to Christian humanism, we would do well to encourage maximal choice and in the effort to ally ourselves especially with Christians with a mission to transform the culture.
written by Mark, April 09, 2013
Exactly, Prof. Esolen. A *huge* part of the problem is that the money gets routed through Washington, D.C., to begin with. There is no reason why monies intended for education in, say, Texas should leave Texas. Anti-choice people in education always seem to assume that the government, usually the federal government, ends up writing voucher checks and mailing them to schools, as if that's the only option.
written by kristinajohannes, April 09, 2013
Tony et al, I think most school funding comes from state and local revenue and doesn't go through Washington. But some does and federal tax deductions for private school tuition is an option in that regard.

My article though is focusing on the state level. In that environment there are many models to consider when you get to that point but before that kind of discussion can even happen in some states, the Blaine type language must be removed through a constitutional amendment, a challenging process. (I say "some states" because apparently not every state supreme court has found the Blaine language to be a barrier.)

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges in the process is clarifying that the constitutional amendment itself does not legislate school choice but only removes the barrier to considering it. Once this is understood it is hard to justify opposition which is perhaps one reason why the strongest opponents to school choice try to confuse the issue by referring to it as a voucher amendment, etc. Elsewhere I've written an article on how that particular campaign of misinformation could backfire.

written by Sue, April 10, 2013
The problem with this thinking about school choice is that it feeds into the "takes a village" mentality (see below). Federal and state funds tend to sort of slush together and make a big mud pit for teachers unions to have fun together. When the voucher spigot is turned on, parents join in to live it up at the taxpayer expense. But ultimately, those who pay are all families who have forfeited their parental rights because some must have the cheap convenience of public babysitters.

Those who can, homeschool!
"MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry worshipped with President Obama at the controversial Trinity United Church in Chicago, WND has learned.

Harris-Perry was also an associate of Obama’s when both taught at the University of Chicago in the early 2000s, and she eventually became a regular commentator on Obama to the news media.

The MSNBC personality is currently in hot water after the network released a promo video in which she argued Americans must grow beyond the idea that children belong to their parents. Instead, Harris-Perry contended, kids belong to the community.

Harris-Perry declares in the ad: “We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility,” Harris-Perry said. “We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children."
written by eddie too, April 10, 2013
why should the government discriminate negatively against parents who do not believe what is taught in the government run schools?

it is a simple matter of justice that, if the government is to assist parents in obtaining educations for their children the government should not discriminate based on the parents' beliefs.

in fact, it is a violation of the first amendment to the u.s. constitution for the government to support some belief systems at the expense of other belief systems.

all parents should have equal access to public assistance in educating their children. that includes muslims, wiccans, hindus, etc.

governments do not have a right to discriminate either for or against their citizens based on religious beliefs.

governments that do not remain neutral in areas of human beliefs are unjust and unrighteous.
written by JOE, April 10, 2013
written by eddie too, April 11, 2013
ahhhh, public education, a concept that takes money from citizens and uses the money to promote the government's belief system and to deny any support for any other belief system. the absolutely most effective way to create a government supported religion in direct opposition to the constitution of the usa. public education bigotry and injustice at its finest. pay close attention to the motives of the people who support and promote "public education". they are not your friends.
written by JQ Tomanek, April 11, 2013
Great article. School choice is a good cause to support.

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