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Blaine Amendments and California charter schools

Blaine Amendments and California charter schools

Churches may not run any of California’s charter schools. A United States Supreme Court decision from last June might change that.

Montana had established a scholarship, funded by private donations, whose donors received a state income tax credit. The state had promulgated a rule denying students from using such scholarships at religious schools.

The court ruled, 5 to 4, that Montana did not have to establish the scholarship program but, since it did, it could not exclude students applying a scholarship to a school just because it was religious.

An easier case had been decided in 2017. Missouri had made state money available for repaving parking lots at daycare centers, but not for those run by churches.  A parking lot involves no religious practice. The court struck down Missouri’s law 7 to 2.

What made Montana’s case more difficult was that the scholarship paid tuition at a school that taught religion.

The ban was based on the fact that it was a church that received the money, however, not what the church did with the funds. That was enough to invalidate the law, for five justices.

California grants a right to run a charter school to anyone except a religious institution. The ban applies without regard to what is taught at the charter school.

Applying last June’s ruling, the court might hold that, while California does not have to have charter schools, if it does, it can’t exclude a church from running one.

California may, however, ban religion from being taught at a charter school.

What Montana, Missouri and California have in common is a provision in their state constitutions originally added in the 1870s preventing state funds from going to religious institutions.

In the 1870s, Speaker of the House James G. Blaine capitalized on a rising antipathy to Catholic immigrants by introducing an amendment to the Constitution forbidding any government spending for religious schools or other institutions, either directly or indirectly.

The amendment cleared the House with only seven no votes; but it fell four votes short of achieving the requisite two-thirds vote in the Senate.

Upon the failure of a national constitutional amendment, individual states took up the cause, and Missouri, Montana and California were among the great majority of states that passed their own “Blaine Amendments.”

California’s charter schools are public schools. They are funded by state taxes, and they must abide by state laws for schools. Charter schools may not exclude any students.

If they are oversubscribed, they must choose students by lot.

However, they are not bound by the union contracts negotiated for regular schools within any school district and the California Teachers Association union resents that.

The best charter schools actively involve parents in K-12 education.

Many achieve results superior to regular public schools.

The California Education Code and provisions of the state constitution forbid both giving any money to a church and spending any money for church purposes.

These “Blaine Amendment” provisions might now be struck down — at least the one that bans churches from receiving money without regard to how the money is spent.

If so, the California Legislature might use that as an excuse to close all charter schools, which the CTA has long wanted anyway.

Tom Campbell is a professor of law and of economics at Chapman University. He was a congressman for five terms, a state senator and California’s finance director. He left the Republican Party in 2016 upon its nomination of Donald Trump and is in the process of forming a new political party in California, the Common Sense Party.


Press Enterprise