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History and Context: the School Voucher Controversy


Origins of the Blaine Amendment.

Ten years had passed since General U.S. Grant accepted the surrender of the South from Robert E. Lee. It was the year 1875 and Grant found himself the President of the United States. In the fervor of Reconstruction, speaking before an audience of Civil War Veterans, and while making an appeal to Protestant voters for the upcoming election, Grant strongly suggested that the Constitution be amended. The separation of church and state needed to be explicated separated scholastically, he argued. No state monies should ever support religious schools.

Presidential rival, Senator James G. Blaine (Republican – Maine) thought the President was onto something good and decided to run with the suggestion. In December 1875 he proposed legislation amending the Constitution which passed the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate. Still motivated, Blaine took the amendment idea to the States. It has become his lasting legacy.

Currently, 38 out of the 50 States use language similar to this:

No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefore, 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.”

This innocent sounding paragraph is the source of great frustration for those who would like to use tax dollars to fund religious schooling. More recently, during the Bush (43) administration, the Supreme Court heard a dispute originating in Ohio: Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002).

Put a pin in that for a moment.

American educational system develops.

Thomas Jefferson, our third President, argued early for a national public school system. However, no one did anything serious until activist/educator, Horace Mann, started crusading for Massachuesetts to pass a school attendance law in 1852.  By the 1890s, serious thought was given to a uniform, national curriculum.  As World War I closed, American children were being educated at the elementary level across the country.

Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economic are credited with first popularizing an idea for a structured school voucher program. He did so in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom.   The idea gained political currency under the Reagan Administration. In recent years, school vouchers became famous under the educational reforms of Michelle Rhee.

Rhee came to the job with a top-notch resume. She spent three years teaching inside the inner city. One year, her classroom was filled with so many difficult personalities that she recalled duct-taping the mouths of the children to keep them quiet as they traveled in the hallways. (Personally, I question WHAT inner city she taught in where the parents let her get away with that one.)

Her first year was a failure, similar to the efforts of most rookie educators. The improvements made in her second and third years led to the remarkable opportunity to train other inner city teachers. Rhee accepted the challenge and built The New Teacher Project. Over 10 years, 23, 000 teachers were trained according to her model.

The election of Adrian Fenty as Mayor led Rhee to the Chancellorship of the District of Columbia. She closed 23 schools due to poor performance and advocated school vouchers. Under the guise of reform, corporate performance standards were placed upon the education of American children. Standardize tests became the measurement of effectiveness. In three years over 200 teachers were fired, many due to No Child Left Behind legislation requirements.

Despite all the pain the Rhee Administration caused, she received enough financial support to start StudentFirst. It acts like a political PAC.

Back to the Supreme Court.

Cleveland, Ohio schools were deemed low performing under No Child Left Behind. Children were not performing on the standardized tests in the less affluent parts of town. The solution was a Pilot Program using $2,250 scholarships to help families cover the cost of private school tuition. The question was whether religious schools could receive tax monies.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, prevents a State from enacting laws that have the “purpose” or “effect” of advancing or inhibiting religion…. There is no dispute that the program challenged here was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system. Thus, the question presented is whether the Ohio program nonetheless has the forbidden “effect” of advancing or inhibiting religion. – Chief Justice William Rehnquist

The Justices developed a litmus test. They stated that a school voucher program can meet the requirements of the Law, without violation of the Blaine Amendment, provided that:

  • the program must have a valid secular purpose,
  • aid must go to parents and not to the schools,
  • a broad class of beneficiaries must be covered,
  • the program must be neutral with respect to religion, and
  • there must be adequate nonreligious options.

Alaska’s Blaine Amendment is Article 7. 1.  Alaska Const. art. VII, § 1: “The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions. Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.

[This is the second part of an ongoing series, continued from Is the school voucher system good for Alaska? Check back for new segments of the story.]


  1. I think that you make a big issue about it being about religion when it is really about school choice and educating the children and that education is more then taking test and teachers pay and benefits and retirement plans. It’s about educating the TRUTH instead of a social program and feeling and leveled education. Listen to the people and what they are wanting for their children and THEIR TAX MONEY! Thanks

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