School Choice as Social Justice

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.