Vouchers get reprieve from Supreme Court, Republican sweep

Libby George

Vouchers – the controversial school reform system that allows tax dollars to subsidize private education – might get a second wind this year.

After the double punch of the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Supreme Court decision in June declaring vouchers constitutional and recent Republican victories, educators in Texas, Colorado and South Carolina are almost certain to see vouchers become a reality, which is heating up the debate in Minnesota.

“Now the battleground will be in state constitutions across the country,” said Harley Ogata, general counsel for the teacher’s union Education Minnesota.

But Ogata said he did not think Minnesota would see any changes.

“On a Minnesota constitutional analysis, (the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case) doesn’t have any relevance,” he said.

Ogata cited the constitutional provisions called Blaine amendments – which exist in Minnesota – that prohibit government money from going to religious institutions or sects. Blaine amendments currently exist in 37 states but are unconstitutional and irrelevant according to others.

“What I hear from people who are advocates of vouchers is that they are more likely to push for an increase in tax credits,” said Joe Nathan, senior fellow and director of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ Center for School Change.

In fact, Republican Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty has said he would support an increase in tax credits but not a voucher program.

Republican Sen.-elect Norm Coleman has also expressed opposition to vouchers. However, in the early 1990s he tried to launch a pilot voucher program as mayor of St. Paul, which leaves voucher hopefuls optimistic.

“There are some who argue there is a provision in the Minnesota state constitution that prohibits state money from going to private schools,” Nathan said. “However, the Minnesota state Supreme Court was asked to rule on the state law (Post-Secondary Enrollment Option), and they said it was OK for tax money to follow students to private and parochial schools.”

The Post-Secondary Enrollment Option allows state money to follow students to colleges that are private or public, including parochial schools.

Nathan said tax dollars currently fund private nonsectarian high schools through charter schools – a system Minnesota pioneered – and the state provides tax deductions for some aspects of parochial education.

But Nathan said vouchers would be going too far.

“What legislators decided long ago is that (vouchers) allocate a specific amount of money to students from education. We have certain freedoms Ö but there are limits on our freedom. What some charter advocates say Ö (is that) vouchers go too far.”

Robert Freedman, staff attorney for the Institute for Justice, the national conservative organization that sponsored the lawsuit in the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, said the opposite is true, and the Blaine amendments, which forbid money from going to “pervasively sectarian schools,” violate freedoms.

“It didn’t have the meaning it has today,” Freedman said. “It was code for Catholic.

“We plan to essentially eliminate any remaining state constitutional opposition,” Freedman said. “The Blaine amendments have been used to discriminate against religious schools Ö essentially singling out religious schools for discriminatory purposes. This is what the Supreme Court has classified as ‘viewpoint discrimination.’ “

Freedman said his organization is currently pursuing cases in several other states, and its goal is “to have parents and children to have not only the chance, but the financial wherewithal to send their children to any school of their choice.”

State Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, a member of the Higher Education Budget Committee, said voucher bills have been proposed but are not likely to be passed in Minnesota any time soon, because of tough financial times.

“Given the pressure in funding for public schools and given the budget shortfall, I don’t know where (Pawlenty) would find the money,” Kelley said.

He said that an expansion of tax credits for private schools could become a reality.

“I suppose I could see an expansion of tax credits for private schools,” Kelley said, saying money would still be an issue.

“When Gov. Arne Carlson put in tuition tax credits they cost money, and he was essentially dividing up a surplus. The current governor does not have that luxury.”

Kelley said despite the current unlikelihood of vouchers, the issue would certainly arise in the future.

“People have been talking for vouchers for 30 or 40 years. I don’t think it’s an issue that will die out,” he said.

Denise Cardinal, senior press secretary for the National Education Association, said vouchers are bad policy and the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case did not prove anything.

“The public isn’t really there when it comes to vouchers. They aren’t good policy,” Cardinal said, saying that tax credits are also bad policy.

“Tax credits actually haven’t been proven to help the students who need it the most,” she said. “We’re subsidizing rich kids that were already in private schools.”

Libby George covers national politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]