Betsy DeVos and Blaming Blaine

Edd Doerr

I write this column shortly after the confirmation, by the narrowest of margins, of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Although many concerns were expressed about her qualifications for the post, one relates to her support for private-school vouchers in her home state of Michigan. Let’s review that history.

“Why Michigan Doesn’t Have School Vouchers and Probably Never Will,” blared the headline on an article in a leading education journal on January 4. Something called the “Blaine Amendment” in that state’s constitution stands in the way, it asserted. “Blaine Amendment” is school-voucher–advocate code for provisions in three-fourths of state constitutions intended to bar support for sectarian private schools with public funds (but more on that later).

The article was wrong. Here is what really happened. Michigan educators, civil libertarians, and other defenders of public education and religious liberty got tired of trying to fend off attempts by state lawmakers to divert public funds to church-run and other private schools. So in early 1970, they launched an effort to amend the state constitution to greatly strengthen the then-existing ban. I know because I was one of the people who helped draft the amendment. Here’s the amendment in its final form:

Article VIII, Section 2. No public monies or property shall be appropriated or paid or any public credit utilized, by the legislature or any other political subdivision or agency of the state directly or indirectly to aid or maintain any private, denominational or other nonpublic preelementary, elementary, or secondary school. No payment, credit, tax benefit, exemption or deductions, tuition voucher, subsidy, grant or loan of public monies or property shall be provided, directly or indirectly, to support the attendance of any student or the employment of any person at any such nonpublic school or at any location or institution where instruction is offered in whole or in part to such nonpublic school students.

After proponents of the amendment had gathered more than 320,000 signatures to place it on the ballot, Attorney General Frank Kelley tried to block it, but the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered it back on the ballot. The campaign raged until the election in November 1970. I remember campaigning for it, from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula (the details were reported in Church & State magazine, of which I had been named managing editor in September 1970). When the ballots were counted, the amendment had won by 57 percent to 43 percent.

In 1978, pro-voucher forces sought to repeal the 1970 amendment, but the effort was crushed at the ballot box by 74 percent to 26 percent. Another repeal effort was launched in 2000, this time bolstered by nearly $13 million from Betsy DeVos and her wealthy family. Their campaign was defeated by Michigan voters by 69 percent to 31 percent.

Before taking up the so-called Blaine Amendment, let’s look at the 1966–1967 battle in New York State, similar to the one in Michigan. A state constitutional convention was called in 1966. Dominated by the interests seeking tax support for church-run private schools, it sought to replace Article XI, Section 3 of the state constitution, which prohibited any direct or indirect tax aid to such private schools. That section of the state constitution had been added by a constitutional convention in 1894 by a vote of 108 to 73.

After a months-long, hard-fought campaign, the state’s voters defeated the proposed new constitution by 72 percent to 28 percent, mainly because of the attempted Article XI, Section 3 substitution. The details are spelled out in my 1968 book, The Conspiracy That Failed, and confirmed by James Cooney in his 1984 book The American Pope: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Spellman. We might note here that between 1965 and 2014, there have been twenty-eight state referenda on various forms of tax aid for private schools, from Massachusetts to California and from Florida to Alaska, with voter opposition averaging two to one. Also, the 2015 Gallup/PDK education poll registered opposition to these plans at 57 percent to 31 percent.

Now let’s look at that label “Blaine Amendment.” Right after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution to, among other things, extend the Bill of Rights to cover state governments. However, in 1873 the Supreme Court in the Slaughter-House Cases largely gutted this meaning, a misstep it did not begin to remedy until the twentieth century. So, in 1876 President Ulysses S. Grant recommended amending the Constitution to bar any and all tax aid to church-run schools. The amendment was introduced by Senator James G. Blaine (R–Maine). It passed the House overwhelmingly but fell slightly short of the required two-thirds in the Senate. In recent years, interests seeking tax support for church-run and other private schools have taken to calling all state constitutional barriers to funding of religious institutions “Blaine Amendments.”

The constitutions of both Alaska and Hawaii—the two states admitted to the Union after World War II—contain provisions barring tax aid to church-run schools. Voters in Alaska (1976) and Hawaii (2014) voted to retain those bans.

But that’s not the whole story. Until well into the nineteenth century, the United States was overwhelmingly Protestant, and public schools allowed “nondenominational” prayer and Bible reading. This was largely opposed by the surge of Irish Catholic immigration. Good people on both sides of the religious divide well remembered the centuries of religious wars and conflicts that followed the Reformation, but the regressive leadership of the Catholic Church in Rome during the nineteenth century only fanned the flames. Meanwhile, Catholic leadership in the United States promoted parochial schools and sought public funding for them, which was blocked by both state constitutions and majority public opinion.

Matters were somewhat resolved in the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court outlawed public-school religious devotions. In the wake of those rulings and the gradual secularizing of the public schools, long in motion, Catholic-school enrollment declined sharply, from 5.5 million in 1965 to two million today. President Richard M. Nixon, who favored vouchers, had two Catholic universities study that enrollment decline; they concluded that it was due to changing parental preferences and not economics. However, court-ordered desegregation of public schools in the 1960s led to the founding of Protestant schools and the invention of school vouchers by Milton Friedman.

So here we are in early 2017 with a president who never attended or sent his own children to public schools picking as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who also never attended or sent her children to public schools or had any experience as a teacher or administrator but who has a long record of working and financing efforts to undermine public education and to divert public funds to private schools. At her Senate hearing, she demonstrated a profound ignorance of public-school matters.

Shortly after the election, I reread the 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born exactly two hundred years before DeVos. Wollstonecraft, who, unlike DeVos, had actual experience as a teacher, advocated tax-supported public schools in which boys and girls, rich and poor, could be educated together. It seems that DeVos is a good two centuries past her expiration date.

Relevant to all this is the fact that since 2008 some thirty-five states have cut per capita funding for public schools by about 7 percent. Note also that the 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 75 percent of Americans regard public-school funding as very important, compared to 77 percent who consider Medicar
e funding as very important.

Do Catholic Hospitals Compromise Your
Health Care?

It was a bitterly cold winter morning forty years ago as I was driving from my home in Maryland to a conference in Washington. Suddenly, I was aware of an elephant standing on my chest and that it was growing heavier. I was having a heart attack and did not know how long I would remain conscious. So I headed for the nearest hospital, Holy Cross, in Silver Spring. I pulled up to the emergency entrance, staggered in, told the nurse at the desk that I was having a heart attack, and immediately passed out. I was a patient there for three weeks. Let me also note that I was born in a Catholic hospital.

My point is that, generally speaking, Catholic hospitals are pretty much like all others. But—and this is a big “but”—there are several areas in which Catholic hospitals are seriously deficient. They threaten good health care with regard to reproductive matters such as abortion, contraception, sterilization, and pregnancies that threaten women’s lives and health. This is of the highest importance because one-sixth of hospital beds in the United States are in Catholic hospitals; because many secular hospitals are linked to Catholic health-care systems and follow the medically restrictive rules imposed by Catholic Church leaders, who are not qualified to make medical decisions; because between 2001 and 2016, Catholic-owned or affiliated hospitals increased by 22 percent; and because they received $27 billion in net revenue from Medicaid and Medicare, thanks to the taxpayers.

This is all spelled out and well documented in Catholics for Choice’s new thirty-four–page book, Is Your Health Care Compromised? How the Catholic Directives Make for Unhealthy Choices. Washington-based Catholics for Choice has been on the front lines defending reproductive choice since 1973.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


“So here we are in early 2017 with a president who never attended or sent his own children to public schools picking as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.”

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