Today, no one would dream of denying a state or federal scholarship to a student attending Boston College or Yeshiva University any more than they might withhold Medicaid funding from a person treated in a religiously affiliated hospital.
Yet that’s exactly what happens to K-12 students in Massachusetts. The reason has little to do with the separation of church and state; rather, it is the result of a bigoted view of Catholics that emerged with the infamous mid-19th century Know-Nothing movement.
As Shakespeare noted in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” At the start, our state and federal constitutions kept religious and educational diversity free of abridgement. In Massachusetts that remained the case from 1780 until 1855, though many American cities saw growing violence against new immigrants who fled the Irish potato famine. Convents were burned, priests tarred and feathered, and the law was increasingly used to punish Catholics.
Boston was in some ways the epicenter of that dreadful movement. Nativist ugliness culminated in the 1855 election of Know-Nothing Governor Henry Gardner and his supermajority of bigoted legislators. For them, the adoption of a constitutional amendment closing off access to Catholic schools was crucial in defeating what they termed “Papism.”
Sadly, today Gardner’s portrait still hangs in a place of prominence in the State House.
That’s the ugly past. It’s prologue because to this day the Know-Nothing amendment acts as a legal block on families who seek to benefit from school choice.
The attitudes of private schools and cost are not barriers to choice. A Pioneer Institute survey of hundreds of Massachusetts private schools found a strong majority willing to accept voucher-bearing students. Vouchers between $6,000 and $8,000 could be provided to Massachusetts students with household incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty rate at little or no cost to taxpayers.
As Rep. John Rogers underscored at a recent State House event, if the parochial school in his Norwood district closed and the students moved to public schools, taxpayers would need to kick in an additional $5 million under the Commonwealth’s foundation budget formula.
Despite the fiscal benefits they provide, the anti-aid amendments prevent Catholic school parents from even claiming a tax deduction for their educational expenses.
Massachusetts is an outlier. Nationwide, 29 states, including Rhode Island and New Hampshire, have private school choice programs that educate 400,000 K-12 students — most often serving the neediest families.
But not in Massachusetts, where constitutional amendments block state money from flowing to low-income families who prefer private and religious school options. In effect, the state closes off access to educational opportunities available to the more affluent.
Massachusetts’ modest public school choice programs — including public charter schools, vocational-technical schools, and the METCO program — don’t nearly meet the demand. These options have statewide waitlists that total almost 50,000 students. Moreover, 23 years after the passage of the Education Reform Act, at least 100,000 children attend either underperforming or failing district schools.
Massachusetts citizens recognize the injustice. A 2012 poll by David Paleologos of Suffolk University showed a majority of respondents favor repealing the amendment, especially “if it meant needy families could have access to more educational choices.”
Removing Know-Nothing Governor Gardner’s portrait will not cleanse Massachusetts of its bigoted past, but moving it to a less prominent location is a start.
More important would be increasing parents’ access to excellent school options, including private schools. The need is there, the costs are easily managed and there is public support for the change. The time is long overdue to expel the Know-Nothings’ anti-aid amendments from the Massachusetts Constitution.
Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute.