Opinion: Banish Blaine to bolster Catholic school potential

Kevin D. Kijewski

“Blaine amendments” in 37 state constitutions prohibit tax dollars from supporting religious schools. While championed today by some who point to the concept of a separation of Church and state, in truth these amendments originated in 19th century anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry, designed to prohibit aid particularly to parochial schools serving immigrant and poor populations.

Catholic schools could compete on a level financial playing field with public schools if the Supreme Court rules that states can't prohibit tax dollars from supporting religious schools.

The laws will be considered by the Supreme Court on Jan. 22 in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. If Blaine amendments are deemed unconstitutional, Catholic schools across the nation will, for the first time, have a real opportunity to compete on a level financial playing field against near-monopoly public schools. It could enable parents to have their children attend high performing schools, where they are regarded not merely as numbers for per-pupil government funding but as unique beings with distinctive God-given personalities, needs and talents.

Our entire society has a shared goal of helping students experience academic and lifelong success. If the Supreme Court removes the financial “finger on the scales” resulting from Blaine amendments, concerned parents and state legislators can come up with solutions to allow for real parental control regarding the education of their children. Taxpayers will be free to have their tax dollars support the school of their choice without ill-conceived obstacles such as Blaine amendments.

Catholic schools for centuries have produced men and women of virtue, including five of the nine current Supreme Court justices, Kijewski writes.

This has worked well for many families in states such as Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania, where tax credit scholarships programs have been allowed to flourish. Such programs allow taxpayers (individuals and businesses) to receive either a full or partial tax credit when they donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. In some of these states, nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations also provide “innovation grants” to schools, including public and charter, that seek to improve student achievement.

We know that true competition yields the best outcomes, and only the combination of values and parental control can produce the academic excellence, community and minority benefits, ethical fair play, and financial discipline desperately needed in American schools. Fearing the outcome of a “level financial playing field,” Blaine amendment supporters concoct dubious claims to maintain the status quo — an attempt to distract us all from a record of failure and decades-long unmet promises to reform education. Their claims are easily refuted:

Some public school advocates claim they just need more money from taxpayers to support public and charter schools, but Catholic schools already do better academically at about half the typical public school per-pupil expenditure. In providing an excellent education with private funds, these schools saved the American taxpayer roughly $24 billion last year, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic schools are not burdened with high-salary administrators, inefficient bureaucracy, and high-powered special interest groups. They must be efficient, and this efficiency is a result of focusing on the formation of individual students and souls.

Many advocates of Blaine amendments also claim private schools skim off the best students and siphon off the most involved parents. This is a tacit admission that Blaine amendment supporters desire to set aside the uniqueness of each child and thwart the protective instincts of parents. This argument is based on a corrosive ideology that mirrors the “equality obsession” of Procrustes, the fabled robber from Greek mythology who sought to have all people he encountered be detrimentally fitted to an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.

Moreover, accusations of “skimming the best students” run afoul of the facts. Catholic schools already operate in the same challenging neighborhoods as traditional and charter public schools, but with a key difference: they reliably educate their students and succeed. Catholic schools consistently demonstrate success among minorities and economically challenged student populations.

An African American or Latino child is 42% more likely to graduate from high school and 2.4 times more likely to graduate from college if he or she attends a Catholic school, according to research conducted by the University of Chicago. The poorer and more at-risk a student is, the greater the relative achievement gains in Catholic schools. With students from all backgrounds thriving in Catholic schools, it is clear the skimming claim is not based in fact or on concern for the welfare of children.

Apologists for traditional public schools often claim that Catholic schools don’t employ the latest pedagogical methods. But are today’s public school students demonstrating any measurable benefits from these methods, or are they merely being used as subjects in the latest experimental fads? Whole-language reading and Common Core math are only two examples of these experimental failures. In contrast, successful Catholic schools operate with time-tested pedagogical methods that regularly outperform newer approaches. In addition, Catholic schools have been proven to successfully meld specialty programs and approaches (e.g., STEM, Classical Education, Dual Language Immersion) with time-tested pedagogical methods.

Catholic schools for centuries have produced men and women of virtue, including five of the nine current Supreme Court Justices. Long before Justice Sonia Sotomayor put on a judicial robe, she wore the uniform of Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in the Bronx. Unfortunately, that Catholic school closed in 2013 due to financial constraints caused in part by a robust Blaine amendment in the State of New York.

“I am heartbroken,” Justice Sotomayor said in an interview with New York Times upon learning about the closure of her Catholic school alma mater. “You know how important those eight years were? It’s symbolic of what it means for all our families, like my mother, who were dirt-poor. She watched what happened to my cousins in public school and worried if we went there, we might not get out. So she scrimped and saved. It was a road of opportunity for kids with no other alternative.”

Kevin D. Kijewski

Justice Sotomayor could not have put it better regarding the importance of Catholic schools for millions of children in our nation. Why should American children continue to be denied a real chance to attend Catholic or other religious schools due to laws rooted in 19th century bigotry? 

It is time for the Supreme Court to finally eradicate Blaine amendments, permit state legislatures to craft real solutions regarding educational choice, and allow taxpayers to support the desire of parents to select schools that best serve their children.

Kevin D. Kijewski, J.D., is the superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Detroit. As an experienced educational leader, Kijewski strives to provide quality educational opportunities and experiences for nearly 30,000 students in 90 schools that lead to high levels of academic achievement. Archbishop Allen Vigneron and Kijewski recently published "Unleashing Our Catholic Schools," a strategic vision to advance Catholic schools.