Idaho is one of 37 states with a Blaine Amendment in our state Constitution.
It’s named after the James Blaine, Speaker of the US House of Representatives in the 1870’s. He tried to get congress to pass an amendment to the US Constitution, but came up short in the Senate. Not to be deterred, he went around to states and convinced most to put the language in their constitutions. Idaho obliged.
The purpose of the amendment is to prohibit any public money to be used to support “sectarian” (religious) schools. Back in the 1870’s, when Speaker Blaine had this mission, the funding of public education was more dismal than it is now in Idaho, though the virtues of education were widely extolled. The problem for many was both cultural and political. The US was ballooning with a mass of immigrants. These newcomers were often Catholic and preferred a Catholic education. The Catholic Church was well organized and able to establish schools that served their parishes. They argued, as many schools do today, that since they were doing this good work, they should be supported, as public schools were. Speaker Blaine, and many of his Republican colleagues saw this as crossing a line, not clear enough in the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution.
Why does this matter? This summer the US Supreme Court told Montana that their Blaine Amendment was unconstitutionally discriminating against an organization and individuals based on their religion. It was a 5-4 decision, but I suspect if it had been delayed until 2021, it would have been 6-3.
Back in 2016 the Idaho Legislature took a run at this, proposing a Constitutional Amendment that would have redefined the Blaine Amendment. But it died in the House without much debate. Now, it seems, the US Supreme Court has cleared the way.
There have been multiple attempts in the Idaho legislature to promote “school choice”. One way to support such choice is to give tax credits for school tuition. Others promote a voucher system, giving parents a credit to be spent at a school of their choice. Such plans have always had to reconcile their vision with the Idaho Constitution (Article 9, Section 5) which prohibits any public funds to sectarian schools. This made it very difficult, since some of the best private schools are affiliated with churches. Can you imagine giving a tax credit to one set of parents of a private school student who attended a nonreligious school, but not to another whose students went a Catholic, or Mormon or even Hindu school? Thanks to SCOTUS, the barn door is now open. Believe it or not, it wasn’t an executive order.
How will this change Idaho education?
There are those that argue market pressures (choice) will have a strong positive effect on education. I hear the mantra frequently repeated that competition makes us all stronger. Somehow, when I hear these arguments, I think the unspoken desire is for education to be cheaper, not better. No doubt market forces effect price.
Opponents worry that a voucher system will lead to private or religious schools skimming the good students. Public schools will be left with the struggling students; society will be further stratified and funding will flow away.
I think we will be finding out about these predictions pretty soon.
You have heard me argue for disruption in our health care system. This Supreme Court decision in essence repealing the Blaine Amendment in 37 states will be a great disruptor to the system of public education. Change is coming.
But there has been no repeal of Article 9 Section 1 of the Idaho Constitution:
The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.