This week the state of Nevada was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for enacting a pathbreaking Education Savings Account program that enables students to go to private schools of their choice with funds they have chosen to save rather than have them spent at public schools they will not attend. With sadness and shock I turned to my daughter, who quickly reminded me that our young people have so much more to offer than us.
My daughter: They’re suing? Why would they do that? How?
Me: Well, people still discriminate on the basis of a lot of things – race, gender, and religion, to name the top three.
Her: But there are laws…
Me: Yes, and there is this law says that people can’t use their education dollars at a private school because that money would somehow make the government look like it is “establishing” religion. Except it’s not. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in the Zelman case in 2002, if parents are conduits for where they assign their tax dollars, the government has nothing to do with it. State courts have upheld similar programs.
Her: I don’t understand, we permit people to do just about everything else they want with tax dollars. Where did this come from?
Me: Well, in the late 1800s the protestants ran the country – and the schools —and they didn’t like those messy Catholics who came here with their saints and medals and religious education.
Her: Like us?
Me: Yes, just like us. And there was this guy named James Blaine who actually wanted to be president (he failed). He advocated for constitutional amendments in many states so that the government would make sure Catholic schools didn’t also get funds to educate their kids.
Only it wasn’t about Catholics, it was about whether or not parents might find – then or now — a different, maybe better way to educate their children that recognized the unique needs they may have.
One parent’s plight as told to the Nevada Policy Research Institute crystalizes the real issue: “Education Savings Accounts provide a choice for my child’s education. The poor performing schools in my neighborhood don’t provide a positive choice for my son. Right now, my son is attending a private school, because of this new law. … Low-income families don’t have a choice. This is allowing for an equal choice for all families, regardless of income levels.”
I’m sure Mr. Blaine, for all his demonstrated hate against Catholics thought he was doing the country a favor, just like so many people in our country thought they were doing us a favor by segregating white and black.
Her: This is crazy. You’ve taken me to schools of choice. I’ve seen what they have done for children. I went to school and made friends with girls I would have never known thanks to DC’s opportunity scholarship program!
Me: Well you’ll love this angle. Here is James Blaine, an 1800s-style Republican and he created a law that is now being supported by 2000s-style Democrats whose party platform – and most of its leaders – share precisely Blaine’s views on educational choice. According to research by the Beckett Fund, during his presidential run, Blaine refused to disavow a speech by a popular Presbyterian minister, which derided Democrats as “the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” So he lost the immigrants and the Catholics.
My daughter: So just like us.
Me: Yep. Just like us.