Ed Quillen’s Argument against Douglas County Vouchers Flunks U.S. History

In yesterday’s Denver Post Perspective section, hoary-bearded columnist Ed Quillen further expounded on his ignorance of 19th century American history, with particular venom directed at the Douglas County Choice Scholarship program. Under the almost-witty headline of “Thou shalt smite vouchers” Quillen takes a leap of faith that goes something like this (I’d insert a direct quote or two but am not interested in attracting the costly legal animus of Righthaven):

  • Leading 19th century American politician James Blaine had a Catholic mother; therefore
  • The Blaine Amendment he crafted into the state constitutions of Colorado and numerous others were bastions of modern “secular” thought promoting the separation of church and state, as understood by the ACLU and its compatriots; therefore
  • Republicans in the 1800s were much more secular and enlightened than their contemporary counterparts; and
  • Forget the fact that parents are given a choice, the Douglas County school board is funneling money to religious schools in violation of a benign state constitutional provision.

Really? Bad history may make for clever political potshots, but beyond that it has little practical use. The leading flaw in Quillen’s column is a fundamental (and willful?) misunderstanding of 19th century American public education — which was “nondenominational” Protestant but clearly not secular as the columnist imagines.

Dick Komer of the Institute for Justice explains it well in his fact-based 2007 testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The following quote is taken from the relevant discussion on pages 33 to 38:

As a variety of historians have shown, the context in which Blaine Amendments arose encompasses the creation of the state public school systems and the perceived need to “Americanize” immigrants, particularly Catholic immigrants, to the United States in the 19th century. From their inception, the public schools were envisioned by their founders such as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard as “nondenominational” schools open to members of all faiths. But by “nondenominational,” these men and their allies in the state legislatures did not mean that the public schools were non-religious or secular. Today we are used to dichotomizing schools into “secular public schools” and “religious private schools,” but that was not the dominant paradigm at the time of the creation of the
common schools.

By “nondenominational” public schools, the public school advocates meant that the schools would reflect a nondenominational Protestantism, a Protestantism that would not teach the doctrines that separated one Protestant sect from another but would rather reflect a generic Protestant approach. Bible reading without commentary, a distinctly Protestant religious practice unacceptable to Catholics, the singing of Protestant hymns, and textbooks giving a distinctly Protestant view of history were all integral components of the education provided in the public schools. Protestant clergymen were among the most vocal supporters of the common school movement and many of the early superintendents of state departments of education were Protestant clergymen.

The compelling argument goes on, a highly significant part of the historical record completely glossed over by Quillen. Highlighting this omission causes the columnist’s case to fall apart like a stack of cards. And that doesn’t even address another flaw in his piece — the careful avoidance of the key distinction between direct institutional aid on one hand (outlawed by Blaine) and parental choice between a series of religious and non-religious schools (upheld in the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision Zelman v Simmons-Harris).

Was GOP House Speaker and Presidential candidate James Blaine a virulent anti-Catholic bigot, or was his amendment introduced essentially to “forestall the danger of bitter and divisive agitation on the question” of Catholic immigrant rights and religious liberties? This is the straw man Quillen sets up, rooted in an assumption of the politician’s personal views. Even if the answer is the latter, as it likely is, Blaine’s motives aren’t nearly as crucial as the milieu into which his amendment was introduced and the clearly accepted definition of “sectarian” embedded in Colorado’s and other state constitutions.

I would imagine educational choice opponents can come up with a more compelling case to deprive 500 Douglas County students of educational opportunity. But if Quillen’s Sunday column is the best they’ve got, then in any reasonably fair-minded setting the Douglas County Choice Scholarship program would win by a TKO.

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