July/August 2018 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2018

Betsy DeVos Attacks State No-Aid Provisions That Block Vouchers

  Liz Hayes

During a May speech to an organization affiliated with the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos criticized the no-aid provisions in the majority of state constitutions that protect church-state separation and religious freedom by ensuring taxpayers aren’t forced to fund religious entities.

No-aid provisions, which opponents inaccurately call “Blaine amendments” after a late-19th-century U.S. senator (and Republican presidential nominee), are often the target of private school voucher proponents like DeVos because they ensure that public money funds only public schools – not private, predominantly religious schools.

“These Blaine provisions prohibit taxpayer funding of ‘sectarian’ … activities,” DeVos said in a May 16 speech to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation in New York City. DeVos implied these amendments are the product of 19th-century anti-Catho­li­cism, and asserted that their main purpose was to prevent public funding of private Catholic schools.

Referencing the 2017 Supreme Court decision in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer that determined a Mis­souri church was eligible to apply for a taxpayer-funded grant to resurface its preschool playground, DeVos said, “There’s hope that Blaine amendments won’t be around much longer. These amendments should be assigned to the ash heap of history. …”

“Like with many things, Betsy Devos has her facts wrong,” Legislative Director Maggie Garrett told Education Week. “It’s a simplistic and inaccurate view of the history. There were many reasons why people supported no-aid clauses; many of them were legitimate.”

Americans United was quick to point out DeVos’ errors.

“Like with many things, Betsy Devos has her facts wrong,” Legislative Director Maggie Garrett told Education Week. “It’s a simplistic and inaccurate view of the history. There were many reasons why people supported no-aid clauses; many of them were legitimate.”

Garrett pointed to the continued support for no-aid clauses, including when Oklahoma voters rejected a ballot initiative in 2016 to strike their constitution’s no-aid clause, and just this year when Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission declined to advance an amendment to eliminate a similar provision from that state’s constitution.

Garrett also said DeVos is “overstating” the impact of the Trinity Lutheran decision, which applied narrowly to playground resurfacing – a nonreligious use.

DeVos also toured two private religious schools while in New York City and touted several states’ tax-credit scholarship programs – another type of voucher program – that she would like to use as a model for a federally funded voucher scheme.

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