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DeVos: State Bans on Public Money to Religious Schools Should Go To 'Ash Heap of History'

Betsy-DeVos-Manhattan-High-School-for-Girls-600 .jpg

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos railed against state constitutional prohibitions on public funds going to faith-based institutions, in a speech Wednesday to the Alfred E. Smith Foundation in New York City. Her trip also included visits to two religious schools. 

The target of DeVos' wrath: so-called "Blaine" amendments to state constitutions that prohibit public funds from being used for religious purposes. DeVos said these amendments, many of which originated in the late 1800s, began as "bigoted" against Catholics.

"These Blaine provisions prohibit taxpayer funding of 'sectarian'—a euphemism at that time for 'Catholic'—activities, even when they serve the public good," DeVos said, according to prepared remarks of the speech to the foundation, which is affiliated Archdiocese of New York.  "Activities like addiction recovery, hospice care, or—the amendments' primary target—parochial education."

These amendments are still on the books in 37 states, DeVos said. And though she didn't get into this in her speech, that includes her home state of Michigan. Back in 2000, DeVos helped lead an effort to change the state's constitution to allow for school vouchers. It failed.  

She added that "there's hope that Blaine amendments won't be around much longer." Last year, she said, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a state-funded playground restoration program in Columbia, Mo., to exclude a facility on the grounds of a church. (That case is Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Comer. More about it here.) School choice advocates are hoping that ruling will prod state lawmakers to re-examine Blaine amendments.

"These amendments should be assigned to the ash heap of history and this 'last acceptable prejudice' should be stamped out once and for all," DeVos said.

But Maggie Garrett, the legislative director at Americans United for the Separation of Church, a nonprofit organization in Washington, has a different take on the state constituional amendments, which she referred to as "no aid" clauses.

"Like with many things, Betsy Devos has her facts wrong," Garrett said. "It's a simplistic and inaccurate view of the history. There were many reasons why people support no-aid causes, many of them were legitimate." And she noted that states continue to support such amendments. Recenty, for instance, Oklahoma tried to strike its clause through a state referendum, but the effort was resoundingly defeated

And she said that DeVos is "overstating" the impact of the Trinity Lutheran decision, which, in Garrett's view, applied narrowly to playground resurfacing.

Federal Role in School Choice

DeVos also gave a shout-out to states—including , Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania—that have created so-called "tax credit scholarship programs," in which individuals and corporations can get a tax break for donating to scholarship granting organizations.

DeVos worked behind the scenes last year to get a similar, federal program included in a tax overhaul bill, but was ultimately unsuccessful, sources say. Still, school choice advocates haven't given up on the idea.

In her speech, though, DeVos acknowledged that a new, federal school choice program might be tough to enact, and even undesirable.

"A top-down solution emanating from Washington would only grow government ... a new federal office to oversee your private schools and your scholarship organizations. An office staffed with more unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats tasked to make decisions families should be free to make for themselves. Just imagine for a moment how that might impact you under an administration hostile to your faith! " she said. "So, when it comes to education, no solution—not even ones we like—should be dictated by Washington, D.C." 

She also conceded that Congress isn't too keen on the idea. "In addition, leaders on both sides of the aisle in Congress—friend and foe alike—have made it abundantly clear that any bill mandating choice to every state would never reach the president's desk," DeVos added.

This wasn't DeVos' only stop in New York City to a religious educational organization. On Tuesday, she had a closed-press visit to Manhattan High School for Girls, an Orthodox Jewish school. That event wasn't originally posted on her public schedule. And on Wednesday, she planned to stop off at Yeshiva Darchei Torah Boys School, also in New York.  

DeVos has no plans to a visit a public school in the nation's largest school district during this trip, upsetting some parents, according to the Wall Street Journal and Chalkbeat.

Her visit also came as New York City officials say they are looking into complaints that dozens of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas aren't providing enough secular studies. The two schools the secretary planned to visit aren't part of that investigation, according to the WSJ.

The swing through religious institutions was by design, said Elizabeth Hill, a DeVos spokeswoman.

"Here in New York as well as across the country, religious education plays an important role in the education landscape," Hill said in an email. "Every child and family has unique education needs, and for some, that means not having to bifurcate religion from education. Touring yeshiva schools over the last two days gave the secretary an opportunity to see firsthand how that's working for Orthodox families."

Where else has DeVos been? Check our school visit tracker.

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos steps out of the Manhattan High School for Girls on May 15 in New York. DeVos met with students and faculty for several hours at the orthodox Jewish private school.

--Mark Lennihan/AP

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