Blaine Amendments are state constitutional provisions that attempt to ban public funding for any education options but the government’s education system.
More than 150 years after a wave of anti-Catholic bigotry swept the country, parents and their students still face the legacy of James Blaine and restricted access to schools of their choice.
In 1875, the country was recovering from the Civil War while embracing the promise of the new global industrialization. The Civil War and its resolution accelerated processes bringing the states under the mantle of one nation and creating a unified identity.
The efforts extended to the provision of elementary and secondary education, with a proposal for a nationwide system that incorporated the efficiencies and organization of industry. At the same time, the United States was facing the challenge of unprecedented waves of new immigrants. The creation of a standardized education system promised a model for assimilation.
Into the mix entered an ambitious and talented politician from Maine named James Blaine. As speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, he proposed a federal constitutional amendment guaranteeing federal control and standardization of public education while denying public funding for alternatives to the public system.
Blaine’s political calculation was to target Catholics, in particular, to unite the predominant culture in the country against the perceived threat of the thousands of largely Catholic immigrant populations. Catholic leaders were aware of the consequences of Blaine’s popular appeal and the political sentiment that motivated the drive to create public schools (essentially Protestant schools) while denying funding for alternatives.
The issue gained prominence in the national debate on September 30, 1875, when President Ulysses S. Grant delivered a speech in Des Moines resolving that “not one dollar” be spent on any “sectarian” (read Catholic) schools. Speaker Blaine, a close political ally, introduced his proposal for a federal amendment a few months later.
While the amendment failed narrowly at the federal level, it succeeded in many statehouses, especially as the country advanced west and territories became states. Iowa did not adopt a formal Blaine amendment as it had already adopted a “compelled support” clause in its constitution in 1857, which essentially functioned as a Blaine amendment, denying direct state funding to Catholic or other public schools.
In 1887, Iowa again became part of the nationwide movement when the anti-Catholic American Protective Association (APA) was created by Henry Francis Bowers in Clinton, Iowa. The founding members were representatives of all major political parties, united in support of restricted immigration, a free public school system and the “prohibition of any government grant or special privilege to sectarian bodies.” By the time the nativist call-to-action began to subside in the 1920’s, only three states in the union had neither a Blaine amendment nor a compelled support clause in their constitutions.
History has shown the fear James Blaine promoted was unsubstantiated. The Catholic schools that educated the hundreds of thousands of children of poor immigrant families during that period often managed to advance their graduates into the middle class in one generation, and Catholics proved they were motivated to assimilate and contribute to their new country.
Regardless, Iowa parents continue to face the legacy of Blaine and the obstacles it was designed to create. Parents deserve the option of exercising their judgment when deciding which school meets the needs of their students. It’s time to address the bigotry of the past and create equitable choice for education.