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Documentary explores amendments that limit school choice


Former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn is pictured in a scene from the documentary film, "Big Sacrifices, Big Dreams: Ending America's Bigoted Education Laws." Photo via YouTube

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BRAINTREE -- A new documentary produced by the Boston-based think tank Pioneer Institute argues against state constitutional amendments that prohibit government aid to private educational institutions, and explores the history of such amendments.

Available on YouTube, "Big Sacrifices, Big Dreams: Ending America's Bigoted Education Laws" looks at four American families, including two from Massachusetts, who have chosen private primary and secondary schools over public ones, largely, each family explains, for faith-based reasons. Though none of the families seem wealthy, they are all barred from receiving government aid that would help pay for private education. The reason, the documentary explains, are anti-aid amendments.

There are currently 38 states with constitutions that contain some form of anti-aid amendments, which essentially bar state money from supporting private primary and secondary schools. Massachusetts has the oldest such amendment, which was adopted in the 1850s during a time when the state's government was primarily controlled by the American Party.

Commonly known as the Know Nothing movement due to the party's semi-secretive activities, the American Party was an American nativist political party that saw prominence in the mid-1850s. At a time when many people in the United States were Protestants, the party deeply opposed the large number of Catholic immigrants flowing into the country.

The party gained power quickly in a number of states, including Massachusetts, although their political prominence was short lived. Yet, for the few years the party members did have political power, they passed laws and amendments that sought to oppress Catholics and immigrants in the country.

The documentary, which contains comments from Ray Flynn, former Mayor of Boston and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, points to those troubled origins, as well as the struggle of the four families, as reasons to eliminate anti-aid amendments.

Speaking to The Pilot Jan. 26, Pioneer Institute executive director Jim Stergios said his organization simply believes "parents need more choices."

While the Pioneer Institute, a right-leaning political think tank, also advocates for business growth, healthcare reform, and government transparency, the issue of "education is hugely important," Stergios said. "It's about half of our work."

Ultimately, though Stergios acknowledged it will be a long process, the organization would like to see the elimination of anti-aid amendments, and an adoption of some form of government aid to families who choose private education.

He listed a number of forms such aid could take, including financial vouchers that could be directly provided to families who choose private education, or aid that could be given indirectly, such as by providing tax credits to organizations that make charitable gifts to students.

Lifting of the anti-aid amendment in Massachusetts could have a positive impact on private and religious schools in the commonwealth, said Stergios, including Catholic schools.

"We have some great Catholic schools, and we believe that they are under-utilized and can serve a great public purpose," said Stergios.

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