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School Choice for Parents

School Choice is a hot topic again. Initiatives, from a number of New Hampshire congressmen, are making their way through the NH congress in support of giving parents a choice in their children’s schools. Even “TV (NH Democrat) President Jed Bartlett” of the “West Wing” reluctantly gave into vouchers in a recent episode. Following the recent DC decision to grant parents a choice in the school their children attend, President George W. Bush made these remarks:

“This is an historic moment for education. It's the first time ever where the federal government has recognized that school choice is a viable alternative for parents. It's an opportunity for us to say to a mother or a dad, here's your chance to achieve your expectation for your child. You see, a society that is responsible is one in which a mother and dad love their children with all their heart and all their soul. And a parent who does that wants the very best, the very best, for their children.

And so this initiative is one that's the beginning of what I hope is change all across the country. It's the beginning of a go-by for other school districts and other communities. It says, look, we want our public schools to succeed; we want them to do well. But we're going to raise the bar and raise expectations. And when we find children trapped in schools that will not change, parents must be given another viable option. And so here in D.C., for the first time, hopefully starting this fall, parents will be given an option -- when parents are dissatisfied, they will now have a chance to take scholarship money to send their child to a school of their choice.” Remarks by President Bush in a Conversation on Parental Options and School Choice, February 2004, Archbishop Carroll High School, Washington, DC.

Now here comes the question to us: If it can happen in Cleveland and now in DC, why isn’t it happening in New Hampshire? In response, the Office of Public Policy of the Diocese requested our Diocesan Attorney to provide a statement to address this issue. The following is that statement.

The Diocese of Manchester, its Bishops, and the Office of Catholic Schools, all support efforts to provide choice to parents in New Hampshire, including help in choosing schools to which to send their children. Toward that end, New Hampshire Catholics join those across the nation in working towards programs which provide parents help in choosing Catholic Schools.

In supporting these measures, however, we are aware of certain provisions of the New Hampshire Constitution which are more restrictive than those of the United States Constitution, at least as both have been interpreted to date. People who are aware of the Cleveland, Ohio voucher decision and other cases involving challenges to voucher or school choice programs under federal law, assume they are equally applicable in all states. This may not be the case.

In New Hampshire, Part 1, Article 6 of the state constitution, includes the following language,“But no person shall ever be compelled to pay towards the support of the schools of any sect or denomination.” This is a so-called “Blaine Amendment” that was added to the constitution in 1877 as part of a national effort to amend state constitutions during a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic activity. The New Hampshire Supreme Court has interpreted this provision to mean that choice programs previously drafted could not include payments to religious schools, under state law. One example of that line of cases is Opinion of the Justices (Choice in Education) 136 N.H. 357 (1992).

The Diocese will continue to support proposals which seek to provide choice, and is hopeful that the interpretation of the state constitution will be changed or that an amendment to the constitution can be drafted and adopted to make such programs legal. We are also aware of a federal case involving the Oregon constitution’s version of the Blaine Amendment presently at the United States Supreme Court which, if successful in upholding an Oregon education choice program on federal grounds, might invalidate all Blaine Amendments. Short of a constitutional amendment, a court decision changing the present interpretation by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, or one invalidating the provision on federal grounds, the legal challenges to school choice and voucher programs involving religious schools in New Hampshire are significant.

We believe everyone supporting these proposals in New Hampshire as we do, should be aware of the particular legal situation we face here when proposing or supporting such measures. The Diocese of Manchester, through its Public Policy Office, is and will continue to monitor these legislative initiatives.

We strongly encourage all parents to correspond with our State and Congressional Legislators and make your will known and support parental choice for schools and a fair voucher mechanism to assist parents with tuition costs.

Diocese of Manchester
The Catholic Church in New Hampshire

153 Ash Street, Box 310
Manchester, NH 03105-0310
(603) 669-3100
Fax: (603) 669-0377

© Diocese of Manchester