Coalition will push for tax support for private schools
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - A group of private school educators and central city pastors has launched an effort to build a "broad-based coalition" to press the Missouri General Assembly for laws to bring public tax support to private schools.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Betty Conley Denton of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Ed Burns of the Citizens for Educational Freedom, and the Rev. Everett Thornton, pastor of Grace Temple Church, were among those who attended a Sept. 19 meeting.
"This is the beginning of a journey we believe will change the landscape of education in Missouri," said coalition leader Sandy Aguirre Mayer, of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.
The coalition calling itself "Parental Choices in Missouri Education" includes the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan School Office. On Sept. 19, about a dozen members gathered at the Gillham Plaza north chancery offices to strategize and form two committees.
One committee will work on drafting legislation and shepherding it through the legislative process. The other committee will seek to build grassroots support in the event that a statewide referendum is placed before Missouri voters.
One huge obstacle is the "Blaine Amendment" in Missouri's state constitution, said diocesan school superintendent Judy Warren.
Named for 19th century politician James G. Blaine who unsuccessfully attempted to place the same amendment into the U.S. Constitution, Missouri's "Blaine Amendment" strictly forbids any state treasury funding for any religious schools. It was placed into the Missouri constitution in 1875, a time when waves of Catholic immigrants were arriving and the Catholic school system was beginning to flourish.
Parental Choices member Betty Conley Thornton, of the Metropolitan Kansas City Black Alliance for Educational Options, called the Blaine Amendment "racist."
"It was put there to prevent Irish Catholics from receiving state money," Thornton said. "That's blatantly racist and we aren't going to tolerate that."
Thornton, however, said that most Missourians today have no idea what the Blaine Amendment is, or of its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant history. Once they are informed, she said, "I'll bet people will say, 'How can we do that in America?'"
In August, a Florida Circuit Court ruled that a voucher system approved by the legislature violated that state's Blaine Amendment.
Past attempts in other states to seek voter approval of various voucher plans have also failed.
In 2000, voters in California and Michigan both defeated voucher referendums by nearly 2-to-1 margins.
The proposal in California would have provided vouchers to the parents of all students attending private schools, and did not receive the backing of that state's Catholic bishops.
The Michigan proposal was targeted to lower income parents in failing public school districts and received strong support from that state's bishops.
But a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that ruled as constitutional a voucher system in Cleveland has breathed new life into the voucher movement, Warren said.
The court ruled on June 27 that the Cleveland system was "neutral to religion" and did not violate the U.S. First Amendment establishment clause because the tax-funded vouchers could be used at any private school, at other public schools or for private tutors.
But, Warren noted, "The Supreme Court merely opened the door. There is a long road ahead of us."
An ABC News poll in July indicated surprising support for vouchers in principle. But the same poll showed strong opposition when respondents were asked if they would support a voucher system that forced cuts in funding for public schools.
Warren noted that there are various publicly-funded "school choice" programs now working in at least 25 states.
These include programs that provide parents state income tax credits or deductions for tuition and other out-of-pocket educational expenses. A similar income tax deduction or credit program in Missouri would not violate the Blaine Amendment because it does not involve direct payments from the state treasury, Warren said.
In outlining the case for public support for private education, Warren said, "School choice is about leveling the economic playing field" by giving lower income families the same choices as more affluent families.
"School Choice is about freedom," she said. "It's about parents having the opportunity to choose the best school for their children."
Denton added that her commitment to the coalition "comes from being a parent."
"Nobody tells me what is best for my child," she said.