The Idaho Constitution strictly prohibits public funds for religious schooling

Legislators who insist on using taxpayer money to pay for private schooling consistently claim that their so-called “school choice” schemes would not violate the Idaho Constitution by making public funds available for religious education.. They are dead wrong. Article IX, Section 5 of that revered document, sometimes called the “Blaine Amendment,” emphatically states that no public funds shall ever be used “to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church.”

Some people, who simply don’t know what they are talking about, falsely claim the Blaine Amendment has been overruled by the United States Supreme Court. Quite to the contrary, the Supreme Court has decided two cases dealing with the Blaine Amendment and neither has overruled it. In the latest case, Carson v. Makin, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

What the Court was saying is that if, and only if, a state establishes a program to provide taxpayer money for private schooling, it must also provide program money for religious schooling. Some politicians are trying, for the first time in Idaho history, to force Idaho taxpayers to pay for private schooling, which would then open the back door to require that taxpayers also pay for religious schooling. So-called “school choice” legislation is a workaround to evade and subvert the Constitution. Whether the use of public funds for private schooling is–by means of a tax credit or school voucher or some other form–it is still a raid on the public treasury in violation of the Blaine Amendment.

A dispute over the Blaine Amendment arose during a candidate forum held by the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce on April 17. Representative Wendy Horman, a strong advocate of using taxpayer money to pay for private education, claimed the Blaine Amendment had been voided by the Supreme Court. Representative Stephanie Mickelsen correctly responded that it is still the law of Idaho. She said, “When you take public tax dollars, and you give them to parochial and private schools,” there is no accountability for the spending. She pointed out that school choice schemes have become budget busters for many, many states.

No matter what you call a school choice plan, it is still a violation of the Idaho Constitution if it results in public money being used for religious instruction. The Legislature has consistently violated its constitutional obligation to adequately fund the public school system, both for instructional purposes and for construction and maintenance of school buildings. Thanks to the good work of Senators Dave Lent and Kevin Cook, along with a number of other legislators, progress was made this year in addressing both deficiencies. This is not the time to require taxpayers to shoulder the additional burden of financing private and religious schooling.

It should not go unnoticed that one of the most vociferous interest groups pushing for school choice programs is the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF). That organization is dedicated to the proposition that the State has no business educating our kids. The IFF’s avowed plan is to do away with public schools. A school choice plan would certainly be a big step in that direction.

Other powerful out-of-state interests have spent heavily to force budget-busting school choice programs on the Gem State. Idaho Business for Education recently disclosed that a Texas-based organization, American Federation for Children (ADF), together with two other dark-money interest groups, spent a total of $134,148 unsuccessfully promoting school choice during this legislative session. ADF has vowed to defeat legislators who opposed these schemes and is rewarding those who bent to its will. Voters should take heed and vote for those like Mickelsen who support our Constitution.

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