Blaine, the Bane of School Choice

The Blaine amendment stymies school choice -- and opportunity -- in Virginia.

School choice in Virginia runs afoul of the Blaine Amendment

Last week I argued that Virginia could promote school choice by making state “Direct Aid to Public Education” dollars follow school children regardless of what school they attended, in effect contributing a $4,500 contribution toward their private school, charter school or home schooling.

Chris Braunlich, with the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, reminds me that a strict reading of the so-called Blaine Amendment to the Virginia Constitution prohibits any appropriation of state funds “to any school or institution of learning not exclusively owned by the State or some political subdivision thereof.” That’s why previous efforts to promote school choice have focused on the tax code.

For now, he writes, the Education Improvement Scholarship tax credit remains the “best and only” education choice option in Virginia. While the program funded only 2,662 scholarships worth $7.6 million in 2015, as I had observed in my post, it is growing rapidly and is pre-authorized for $10 million in the first six months of this year. He writes:

One reason our program is so small is the relatively small size of our tax credit:  65 percent.  If our tax credit were in line with other states, the number of students being helped would be significantly higher.  For example, Florida’s 100 percent tax credit raises more than $357 million to aid more than 77,000 students whose cost of education is removed from the state budget. Pennsylvania’s two programs, with up to a 90 percent tax credit, provide scholarships worth $124 million to nearly 50,000 students. Arizona’s 100 percent tax credit in three different programs raises $92.5 million to offer a more choices to nearly 46,000 students. Georgia’s 100 percent tax credit raises $54 million to aid more than 13,000 students.

Unfortunately, rather than increase the value of the tax credit, says Braunlich, Governor Terry McAuliffe proposes reducing it.

Meanwhile, Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, has filed HB 1605 for the third year running. The bill provides for Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to Virginia students, similar to programs that helped 6,000 students in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Nevada.

Parents would apply to their school division for a renewable Parental Choice Education Savings Account for an amount tied to “a certain percentage” of the Standards of Quality. Parents could use the money for education-related expenses including tuition, deposits, fees, and required textbooks.

It sounds like a great idea…. assuming local school boards are willing to go along, which in many cases they won’t be, and assuming it doesn’t run afoul of the Blaine amendment, which it probably will. It also sounds like it’s a lot more complicated than would be necessary if Virginia repealed the Blaine amendment.

Just like the tax-credit scholarships, half a loaf may be better than none. But I’m more inclined to attack the problem directly by revising the state Constitution.

There are currently 1 comments highlighted: 97676.

10 responses to “Blaine, the Bane of School Choice

  1. Jim, you’ve triggered a fun time here researching what is (or was, in some other States) the “Blaine Amendment.”

    In case anyone has forgotten (or ever knew), James G. Blaine was a Republican U.S. Senator from Maine who introduced a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1875, plainly motivated by the anti-Catholic sentiments of the times, which would have barred taxpayer funding of Catholic schools. This amendment was not passed by enough States, but eventually some 34 States got around to adopting “Blaine Amendments” to their own constitutions — Virginia among them. The example of these anti-immigrant measures promoted by the Republican Party was one factor in the surge of anti-black measures (such as the Jim Crow laws) championed by Democrats in the South. Blaine, by the way, ran for U.S. President in 1884 against Grover Cleveland, triggering this description in Wikipedia: “The presidential campaign of 1884 was one of the most memorable in American history. The Republican nominee, James G. Blaine of Maine, was nicknamed the “plumed knight,” but disgruntled Republican reformers regarded him as a symbol of corruption. He “wallowed in spoils like a rhinoceros in an African pool.””

    The Virginia manifestation of Blaine’s populist wisdom was not deemed an absolute barrier to tuition grants to private, non-sectarian schools. On the brink of Virginia’s compliance with federal-mandated desegregation, however, with vouchers for students attending private schools contemplated as one element of Massive Resistance, the Virginia Supreme Court issued its decision in Almond v. Day 89 S.E.2d 851 (1955), which held that giving tax dollars to parents to send their kids to a private school was tantamount to giving that money to the school directly, which the Virginia Constitution forbade. The Gray Commission immediately proposed, among other things, a Constitution Convention to remove this impediment, which was done in 1956. The resulting amended provision is still in the Virginia Constitution as Article VIII sec. 10; it still authorizes State tuition grants to students attending either public or private, non-sectarian secondary schools. The “Blaine” aspect, forbidding such grants to sectarian (Catholic and the like) schools, is still part of this provision. Most of the Massive Resistance era implementing legislation, however, is long gone. Article VIII sec. 11, added among the 1971 Constitutional revisions, also allows State loans (but not grants) to students attending public or private, non-profit colleges (sectarian or not) for non-religious education; see Miller v. Ayres, 213 Va. 251 (Va. 1972); but that provision does not extend to secondary schools in any case.

    In short, there’s no Virginia constitutional obstacle to tuition grants to benefit students attending non-sectarian private secondary schools.

  2. Acbar, Thanks for the tutorial.

    Actually, the loophole for non-sectarian schools is a pretty good one. The idea isn’t to subsidize existing schools as it is to stimulate start-ups. It’s tough for a religious school to give up its affiliation. It’s a lot easier starting a school from scratch with no such affiliation.

    • But also it’s hard to get a private school organized without the backing of a religious group to provide (or co-sign) loans, etc. There are several private schools in Virginia operating more or less on a secular basis today but with vestigial ties to the religious organizations that helped found them. Once so affiliated, it’s hard to get out of. Of course there are also private schools out there with frankly religious agendas, and I don’t fault the GA for avoiding making any distinction between these.

  3. Here is the Virginia constitutional provision referenced above (art VIII sec 10) — it’s the first proviso that is relevant here:
    “No appropriation of public funds shall be made to any school or institution of learning not owned or exclusively controlled by the State or some political subdivision thereof; provided, first, that the General Assembly may, and the governing bodies of the several counties, cities and towns may, subject to such limitations as may be imposed by the General Assembly, appropriate funds for educational purposes which may be expended in furtherance of elementary, secondary, collegiate or graduate education of Virginia students in public and nonsectarian private schools and institutions of learning, in addition to those owned or exclusively controlled by the State or any such county, city or town; second, that the General Assembly may appropriate funds to an agency, or to a school or institution of learning owned or controlled by an agency, created and established by two or more States under a joint agreement to which this State is a party for the purpose of providing educational facilities for the citizens of the several States joining in such agreement; third, that counties, cities, towns and districts may make appropriations to nonsectarian schools of manual, industrial or technical training and also to any school or institution of learning owned or exclusively controlled by such county, city, town or school district.”

  4. I wouldn’t think such a thing would have a snowball chance in hell of passing but perhaps others think it would… I’m trying to think what demographics and constituency would be in favor…

    • This wasn’t yesterday’s posting proposing a $4500 tuition credit; the subject today was whether the “Blaine Amendment” is a constitutional impediment to tuition credits or direct State support for private, nonsectarian schools and IMHO it’s not. Now, as to the underlying question whether we SHOULD have tuition credits assuming the GA is free to adopt them — who is going to push that idea in Richmond? Gov. McAuliffe, no. Sen. Norment – I wish! Del. LaRock, yes. Wake up, Richmond, there are people with money and ideas in NoVa waiting for the next census and reapportionment.

  5. tax credits are little different from tax dollars as every tax credit reduces taxes to the state.

    they’re actually called Tax Expenditures – and they’re booked as a spending expense in the budget.

    the whole idea as currently pushed by advocates is bogus because the basic premise is to help those in failing schools yet there is no such stipulations in the proposals. If you’re going to do this – it should be ONLY to kids in failing schools and Means-tested to help only the low-income AND there has to be some practical financial way to provide the full funding needed for the kid to actually be able to attending a better school.

    It should NOT be what amounts to a de-facto subsidy of higher income folks to send their kids to private school.

    but the folks who push this don’t seem to care if tax dollars are to be used that way – at all.. it’s fine with them and if no low-income kids could ever actually use such tax-credits to actually escape a failing school, they could care less… it’s pretty obvious.

    There’s some pretty good irony here because public schools offer a LOT more than private schools in general. Most schools spend twice as much money locally than the state mandates for SOLs and they spend it on other value added things mostly for the more academically inclined , sports and other extracurricular activities advocated by the better off – for their kids.

    All the better teachers go to the better schools and avoid the troubled schools which get staffed by entry-level and other low performers who are not wanted by the better schools.

    As long as the public schools function that way – we’re never going to be able to deal with the low-income neighborhood schools but this tax credit idea – as is – will never help those kids at all.. because parents do not have the rest of the money to actually send their kids to other schools so it’s really a cynical concept… to basically use tax dollars to subsidize those who are better off to send their kids to private schools.

    why would any fair-minded person who truly cares about a good education opportunity for ALL kids, in good conscience, support such a scheme?

  6. LarryG, you say, “this tax credit idea – as is – will never help those kids at all.. because parents do not have the rest of the money to actually send their kids to other schools so it’s really a cynical concept… to basically use tax dollars to subsidize those who are better off to send their kids to private schools.”

    If you are correct then it is a “cynical concept” — but that’s not my impression at all. In DC the lengths parents who care about education go to to get their kids admitted to, and commute to, the private or charter school of their choice is simply amazing. These are not isolated exceptions but typical, based on what I hear from City friends on Capitol Hill who share transportation arrangements with parents even further from the their schools. The assistance some (far from all) get from vouchers is not the deciding factor but makes a huge difference. Sure, there are those parents whose kids receive no parental encouragement at all or support, transportation or even meals, and those essentially-abandoned waifs are not going to be helped by vouchers — but that’s not the typical family in the schools here that I read about.

    Anyway, what’s so wrong about helping middle-aged class parents too, who have already paid for public schooling through their taxes but for whatever reason find the local public school unsatisfactory? Why shouldn’t they get a voucher worth a fractional reimbursement to help them pay for the alternative?

  7. * middle-class (darned auto-spell-correct!)

  8. why? because it’s being sold as a way to help low-income kids in failing schools get rescued.

    that’s what’s cynical.

    and you ask then what’s wrong with using tax dollars collected from everyone – INCLUDING the poor who actually do work and cannot afford to send their kids to those voucher schools – yet another tax benefit they cannot access?

    that’s your idea of a fair and equitable system?

    come on Acbar – I can understand Bacon’s jaded ideological politics but YOU?

    sometimes I wonder what planet you guys are really on !!!

    what else do you want subsidized for the middle class?
    Mortgages, employer-provided health insurance, HSAs, … oh wait…

    if you REALLY want to propose legislation to essentially subsidize those who are not poor with taxpayer money then you should be honest and make that the proposal – and not dishonestly claim to want to “help” the “poor” kids.

    doubly worse – those kids grow up to become entitlement and incarceration burdens for YOUR kids… what kind of logic is this?

    so yeah.. why not collect taxes from everyone including the poor so the middle class can send their kids to private schools. Heck, no different than all the whining about the middle class wanting 100K in subsidies to send
    their kids to UVA… what’s new?

    good plan!

    My Plan? allow the tax credits but restrict who can get them. They have to be in failing schools and in poverty – and we pay the whole cost of the voucher school… AND we hold those schools accountable for actually delivering what they claim they will… BETTER than the failing schools.

Leave a Reply