Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Republicans playing with constitutions

They should never be given matches, either

Republicans are never more painful idiots than when they pretend to be constitutional scholars. The example de jour is from the Minnesota Independent’s article about the “school vouchers” debate in the Minnesota Senate; here’s a comment by Sen. Benjamin Kruse:

To the possible constitutional agreement [we’ll give Ben the benefit of the doubt and say he meant “argument”] here, we just saw yesterday in Arizona, the Supreme Court upheld a very, very similar piece of legislation so I think we are heading in the right direction with this,” he said.

If your read Andy Birkey’s excellent piece,  you’ll see that the bill under consideration is a tax credit for private school tuition plan, a “back door” voucher plan as critics of the plan contend. The bill, an omnibus education bill passed the Senate, with the voucher plan attached, along party lines.

If you attend carefully to the decision in ARIZONA CHRISTIAN SCHOOL TUITION ORGANIZATION v. WINN, you will see that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a U.S. Circuit Court decision and held that the plaintiffs lacked standing: they weren’t proper plaintiffs, since they were mere taxpayers. It was a 5 – 4 decision on, of course, federal grounds.

It is hard to know what the U.S. Supreme Court is going to do these days, depending as it does on whether Justice Kennedy’s lower GI track is acting up again. So, we will regretfully lay aside the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and focus on Minnesota state law, and the Minnesota Constitution, specifically.

I have written about this issue quite a lot, including in a post entitled Captain Ahab Fishsticks’ Favorite White Whale. Perhaps Senator Kruse is not aware that Minnesota has a constitution, but it does. And it speaks more directly and comprehensively to equal educational opportunities than the Arizona Constitution’s Article 11, Section 7.

Here are the first two sections of Article XIII of the Minnesota Constitution:

Section 1. UNIFORM SYSTEM OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican [little “r”] 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 [must] 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.

Something else that Sen. Kruse may not know: Minnesota had a system of tax credits for private schools that was struck down by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1974 in a case entitled MCLU v. State. Here’s a quote from my earlier post:

Oh, by the way, boys and girls, did you know that Minnesota used to have a voucher-like scheme for private, including sectarian, schools? Well, it did until the Legislature got spanked by the Minnesota Supreme Court in MCLU v. State (oh, vile MCLU!) in 1974. It was called a tax credit system, where private school tuition up to a certain amount could be credited against Minnesota income tax, and if the credit was bigger than the tax owed, the state would send you the difference. Vouchers without the actual coupon.

The Court said, in a unanimous opinion, what? Are you nuts? (That’s Spot’s paraphrase, anyway.) It’s a violation of the separation of church and state. The Court ruled [partly] on US constitutional grounds, but noted that Minnesota also had this constitutional provision:

[Art. XIII, Sec. 2, quoted above]

Current law in Minnesota holds that a tuition tax credit system for private sectarian schools is Minnesota Constitution unconstitutional. Period.

And we haven’t even talked about Section 1 yet. There was an argument in desegregation cases brought in Minnesota that segregated schools and the system of school finance violated Section 1 of Article XIII, in that the educational opportunities for minority and inner city kids was not equal to others. I don’t think that issue was ever litigated to a conclusion, but settlements that included the inter-district school choice programs and the multi-district magnet schools indicate that the defendants took the argument seriously.

It is probably time to dust off Article XIII, Section 1 again.

The voucher bill, along with tax cuts for business proposed by the Senate Republicans, are Exhibit A – or  is it B, C, or D?; one loses track – of the fundamental unseriousness of Republicans about the deficit. They moan and wail about it until something their constituency wants comes along. Then, it’s where’s the checkbook?

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