Blaine, busing and educational freedom

By Larry Sand
July 23, 2019

Thanks to Kamala Harris and the state of Montana, school choice is back in the news.

A few weeks ago, Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris nailed fellow Democrat Joe Biden at a primary debate in Miami for not supporting court-ordered school busing some 45 years ago. It was a well-orchestrated attack, accompanied by the sale of T-Shirts of Harris as a child for $30 bucks a pop.

After watching the interchange, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten expressed surprise that Biden, having gone through the tragedy of his son’s death, “didn’t hear Harris’ pain” over his stance in the 1970s. But then again, Weingarten’s union endorsed busing back in the day, so her point of view was predictable.

Beyond Harris’ ambush and Weingarten’s support, not to mention her cruel invocation of Biden’s deceased son, there are facts to consider. First of all, Harris – daughter of two academics – was in a voluntary busing program to further desegregate the tony, and mostly already integrated, Berkeley schools she attended as a kid. More importantly, pretty much everyone of all races hated busing, a horribly failed experiment. According to a 1973 Gallup Poll, while a great majority of Americans favored integration, only 5 percent approved of busing, 4 percent of whites and 9 percent of blacks. Between 1972 and 1980, the percentage of black students attending mostly black schools didn’t change. And with their kids being bused an hour or more away from their community and neighborhood school, parents typically were furious.

At the same time the busing kerfuffle arose in Miami, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue in the 2019-2020 session. In December 2018, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the state’s tax credit program that allowed poor kids to use donated pre-tax money to attend private schools, including religious ones.

As Matthew Vadum explains in The Epoch Times, “The program under review provided a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to $150 matching an individual’s or a corporation’s donations to nonprofit student scholarship organizations.” But, according to the state court, it allowed the legislature to “indirectly pay tuition at private, religiously-affiliated schools,” which is contrary to Montana law.

The anti-religious ruling comes to us courtesy of Montana’s anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, a variety of which exists in 36 other states, and is supported by the education establishment – including the teachers unions.

In two other similar cases, the Supreme Court has come down on the side of religious freedom. In the 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, the Supreme Court ruled that because financial aid goes to parents and not the religious school, vouchers are indeed constitutional. Then, in 2017’s Trinity Lutheran Church v. Pauley, a Missouri church, operating a daycare and pre-school, applied to a state grant program that helps non-profits pay to install rubber playground surfaces. The state denied the Church’s application because “the state constitution bars the state from providing funds to religious entities.” But Trinity Lutheran pursued the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where it prevailed.

Forced busing and the Montana case provide a clear litmus test. As such, I have a few questions for teacher union leaders and other education central planners who have championed busing but constantly rail against “voucher schemes” and all other forms of parental choice:

  • You say busing will help level the racial playing field. But busing kids from School A to School B and other kids from B to A – unless the schools are of exactly the same quality – are helping one half, but hurting the other half. Does this seem like a good policy to you?
  • You say you’re against vouchers because they promote segregation. But researcher Greg Forster reports that ten empirical studies have examined private school choice programs on segregation and nine found the programs reduced it, while one found no visible difference. What evidence do you have to refute Forster?
  • You praise Pell Grants. These federal dollars go to needy college students and can be used to attend private colleges, including religious schools like Notre Dame and Brigham Young. But on the k-12 level, giving parents choices – vouchers, education savings accounts, etc. – is your worst nightmare. Why is the private option perfectly okay for college students, but not elementary and high schoolers?
  • A recent American Federation for Children poll conducted by Beck Research, a Democratic polling firm, reveals that nationally 73 percent of Latinos and 67 percent of African-Americans back “the broad concept of school choice.” You keep promising to give voice to the poor and minorities, but you don’t trust them to make decisions for themselves when it comes to educating their children. Why don’t you trust parents to make the best educational choices for their kids?

I’m not holding my breath waiting for answers, however.

 *   *   *

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network– a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

MORE GREAT ARTICLES