“I Know Nothing”: The Story of How Bigotry Limits School Choice in America


FlagI Know Nothing: The Story of How Bigotry Limited School Choice in America is a 30-45 minute documentary produced by Sword & Spoon Enterprises for release in 2017.  This film will tell a powerful story developed by seasoned scriptwriters in tandem with research talent.

Pioneer Institute seeks to establish a powerful, new line of argument that is a direct attack on the nativist bigotry at the core of the anti-school choice movement.

We will do this by creating a documentary that exposes the persecution and violence directed at Catholics by Know-Nothing mobs during the 1840s and 1850s. This movement influenced a generation of legislative and constitutional changes severely limited parental choice even today. We have all the ingredients to see a turnaround in public sentiment on the issue.


CitizenshipNativist sentiments were, like slavery, a part of the original fabric of the United States.  In the 1840s, nativist movement leaders formed official political parties and local chapters of the national Native American Party (later the American Party), although they continued to be commonly known as the Know-Nothing Party. Politicians sought to insert provisions into state constitutions against Catholics who refused to renounce the pope. The Know-Nothing movement brought bigotry and hatred to a new level of violence and organization.

The party’s legacy endured in the post-Civil War era, with laws and constitutional amendments it supported, still today severely limiting parents’ educational choices.  A federal constitutional amendment was proposed by Speaker of the House James Blaine prohibiting money raised by taxation in any State to be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.  These were then named the Blaine Amendments of 1875.

Blaine & Anti-Aid Amendments Today

The Blaine Amendments remain largely intact today. These Amendments restrict government funding from flowing to religiously affiliated organizations in 38 out of the 50 states and are a violation of the first and fourteenth Amendments.

In recent decades, often in response to challenges to school choice programs, the U.S. Supreme Court has demonstrated great interest in examining the issues of educational alternatives and attempts limit parental options.  Massachusetts plays a key role in this debate.   The Bay State was a key center of the Know-Nothing movement and has the oldest version of Anti-Aid Amendments in the nation, as well as a second such amendment approved in 1917.  Two-fifths of Massachusetts residents are Catholic, and its Catholic schools outperform the state’s public schools, which are the best in the nation.


What Now

In Massachusetts, The Know-Nothings amendments prevent more than 100,000 urban families with children in chronically underperforming districts from receiving scholarship vouchers that would grant additional educational alternatives.

film equipmentI Know Nothing: The Story of How Bigotry Limited School Choice in America will air in 2017.  We will rely on you, our partners, to help us inform key stakeholders and decision-makers of the legislative and constitutional obstacles to school choice.  This is not just a Massachusetts problem.  These barriers affect 76% of the states in our country.

While comprehensive legislation and the courts remain key players in advancing educational opportunity, it is imperative that there be grassroots support from the public.

Pioneer seeks your support for this important project.  To learn more about our special fundraising opportunities please contact Kat McCarron at 617-723-2277 x217 or bpatterson@pioneerinstitute.org.

All gifts in support of this project are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Get Involved

Join our Email list and stay current on our work

Sign up now and agree to show the documentary when it is launched in 2017.

Support our work by making a financial contribution.