Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Vouchers Smouchers . . .

Spot has written before about the Minnesota Constitution and public education. He believes that the proposal of the governor (supported by Geoff Michel; Spotty doesn't know what Reps. Erhardt and Peterson think about this, but he is going to find out) for "school choice," meaning vouchers, is against the explicit terms of the Minnesota Constitution.

For good order's sake, Spot reproduces the first two sections of Article XIII of the Minnesota Constitution:

Section 1. UNIFORM SYSTEM OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.

Sec. 2. PROHIBITION AS TO AIDING SECTARIAN SCHOOL. In no case shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught.

You might be interested in Spot's earlier discussion of these provisions here.

Spot thinks it is pretty self-evident that if the Legislature provides state incentives for some students to bail out of a public school system, and thereby reduces the funding available to that school through the per-pupil formula, it is not establishing a general and uniform system of public schools . . . throughout the state. It is doing the opposite. Pretty clearly, the drafters of the Minnesota Constitution would take a dim view of the Legislature sabotaging the same public school system that it is obliged to establish and nourish.

In one of the more pseudo-sincere performances of his legislative career, Geoff Michel told an assembled group that he couldn't "look into the eyes of parents in the Minneapolis or St. Paul school system and tell them their child can't go elsewhere." If there is a problem with the Minneapolis or St. Paul school systems, and parents want to send their kids elsewhere, Spotty lays a lot of the blame right at the feet of the governor and the Republicans in the Legislature who forced approximately $185,000,000 in K12 cuts from the last biennium. Vouchers will just accelerate and exacerbate the decline of our central city schools, and let’s face it, most city kids will continue to go to them.

And it is not as though there isn't some school mobility already. Open enrollment permits a number of children from Minneapolis and elsewhere to attend Edina schools. In fact, Spotty thinks that Edina likes open enrollment, because it increases its per-pupil revenue, which helps pay the existing fixed costs of the district. But this is not what vouchers are really about.

The real driver for vouchers is the Edwatch crowd and its ilk. They want to retreat as far as possible from the civil society from which they feel such alienation. They are frightened of exposing their kids to any environment over which they don't have complete control of content and religious doctrine. (So much for strong religious faith, but that's another post for another day.)

But Spotty believes he has some really bad news for them.

Section 2 of Article XIII printed above clearly prohibits not only the appropriation but also the use of public money or property for sectarian schools. Spot says that if public funds wind up in a parochial or sectarian school, even if it is done pursuant to a voucher bill that is neutral as to kind of private school, it is an unconstitutional use of funds under Section 2.

Note this is a different standard than the one being used at present by the US Supreme Court, which has permitted the camel's nose under the tent in several circumstances (Spotty has heard that lawyers like to say that; apparently it means that if you permit a camel to stick its nose into your tent, pretty soon you have the whole camel).

The US Supreme Court is deciding constitutionality of funding of sectarian schools using a "neither advance nor retard test" under the First Amendment. Under this test, the Supreme Court has decided that some non-classroom expenses of sectarian schools can be supported with public money; transportation is an example.

Notice that the language of the Minnesota Constitution is more direct. If a Minnesota state issued voucher ever wound up at a sectarian school and was presented to the state treasurer for reimbursement, it would be unconstitutional to pay it. Period.

Spotty cannot find any reports of decisions on these provisions of the Minnesota Constitution, at least on the state's electronic database. But if the state adopts a voucher system, you can be sure that would change.