August 22, 2013

#Back2SchoolChoice — Is there school choice in California?

By Joshua P. Thompson Senior Attorney

We often get asked here at PLF why there isn’t school choice in California.  The answer I usually give is that Californians do have some choices in education.  Californians, of course, have one of the most robust charter school laws in the country.  Further, California law permits transfers from one public school district to another school district (provided certain conditions are met).  And, homeschooling is alive and well in California.  Yet, it is also true that the California Constitution has one of the most strictly enforced Blaine Amendments in the country, and it is seen as an impassable hurdle to allowing vouchers for students to attend private schools.

Blaine Amendments are named after former Maine Congressman James Blaine.   Blaine proposed an amendment to the United States Constitution that would have prohibited states from ever using public funds to support sectarian schools.  While the Amendment failed to get the necessary 2/3 vote in the US Senate to become a constitutional amendment, many states, including California, adopted the Amendment into their own state constitutions.  California’s Blaine Amendment is found in Article IX, section 8 of the California Constitution.  It reads: “No public money shall ever be appropriated for the support of any sectarian or denominational school, or any school not under the exclusive control of the officers of the public schools; nor shall any sectarian or denominational doctrine be taught, or instruction thereon be permitted, directly or indirectly, in any of the common schools of this State.”

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the adoption of Blaine Amendments in states across the country.  Many of them were supported on strict anti-Catholic grounds.  Yet, the Blaine Amendments remain law.  In California, Article IX, section 8 has been interpreted so strictly that public schools are even prohibited from lending textbooks to sectarian schools.  So, absent a constitutional amendment, it is highly unlikely that vouchers could ever become law in California.

But what about the tax credit programs like the ones passed in New Hampshire and Arizona?  For the reasons I stated yesterday, there should be no constitutional hurdle to the California legislature adopting a tax credit program that allows individuals and businesses to claim an income tax deduction for donations to private tuition organizations — organizations that would, in turn, provide scholarships to students to attend private schools.  Yet, given the current political climate in California, there is little likelihood of such legislation gaining traction.  The California Teachers’ Union, together with school districts across the state, have strenuously fought any expansion of educational choice.

The strenuous opposition to school choice in California is demonstrated by the vehement opposition to charter schools.  Fortunately, California voters, parents, and students overwhelmingly support charter schools.  So much so, that there are currently over 70,000 California students on waiting lists to get into California charter schools.

Until such time as tax credits, or a constitutional amendment come to pass, charters are Californians best hope for improving the educational future of California’s children.  By giving parents choices, and injecting competition in the public school system, charters have already done amazing things for the state of California education.  Tomorrow, in our final installment of #Back2SchoolChoice Week, we will highlight some of the most important challenges to California charter schools today, and what PLF is doing to ensure that parents continue to have the ability to choose charter schools for their children.

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