School voucher debate riles Minnesota Senate

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On Tuesday, Minnesota Senators debated whether taxpayer funds should be used to pay for private religious school tuition as part of an omnibus tax bill. Republicans hope the proposal, which is modeled after one in Arizona and has been dubbed a “backdoor voucher” system by some, will pass constitutional muster. The U.S. Supreme Court released a decision on Arizona’s system on Monday that could boost state Republicans’ hopes, but DFLers say regardless of the measure’s constitutionality it represents the GOP’s ultimate goal of “dismantling” public education altogether.

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, introduced an amendment to the tax bill that would delete a program that allows large tax breaks for low-income families to be used for private school tuition.

“At a time that our school districts are cutting back, we need put our money into our public schools instead of putting taxpayer money into private and religious schools,” she said. (The GOP’s education budget cuts education funding in Minneapolis publich schools by $415 per student, while per-student funds would to decrease by $395 in St. Paul and $132 in Duluth.)

The program would cost $10.7 million in the next biennium. “We should be spending these precious taxpayer dollars on our public schools,” she added.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said, “I would hope that you would give our poorer families an opportunity to climb out [of poverty] and that you resist voting for the Sieben amendment.”

As the Minnesota Independent reported when a voucher bill was first introduced this session, taxpayer funding for religious schools in Minnesota is expressly prohibited in the Minnesota Constitution, even if the federal government has allowed it in some circumstances.

The new proposal in the tax bill takes out the voucher system and creates a tax credit.

Currently, Minnesota law allows for families to take a tax break for certain private school expenses – except for tuition. And that stood up to a Minnesota Supreme Court challenge in the mid-1990s. The current bill would change that tax break to included tuition as well as other related expenses, an issue the court has not yet taken up. But the bill stops short of a voucher system which would make direct payments to private schools.

Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said that would present a problem. “First of all, it’s a substantial expansion of the taxpayer subsidy for private schools. Tuition is the motherload of costs,” he said, adding that many taxpayers would have a problem subsidizing another taxpayer’s decision to put their children in private schools.

“There’s a second consideration here,” said Latz. “This would constitute taxpayer funding for specific religious purposes because the vast majority of private schools are religious in nature.”

Latz said that current law allows a tax break for non-tuition expenses like textbooks or supplies because they don’t go to religious instruction. The law specifies that those expenses pay for school needs that are similar to the coursework that would be found in a public school.

Using tax credits to pay tuition at a religious school, Latz said, “That’s taxpayer dollars specifically advancing religion.”

Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park, disagreed with Latz’s constitutional concerns.

“To the possible constitutional agreement 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.

That case at the Supreme Court was decided on Monday in a split 5-4 decision. The court ruled that taxpayers have no legal recourse when tax credits, as opposed to vouchers, are used to fund religious schools. Separation of church and state watchdog groups have called the tax credit strategy a “backdoor voucher program.”

“If government officials set up a program where contributions to these religious institutions are offset by a 100 percent tax credit, a taxpayer has no right to challenge that funding in court, despite the fact that it has the same result: tax dollars are going to fund religion,” Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said of the decision.

As Kruse noted, the Minnesota proposal is based on the Arizona system.

He said that the program should be passed into law. “We should keep that choice, keep those dollars in the hands of the most impoverished. It is so important to help these children get a better education, have a fighting chance to better their lives.”

He added, “These dollars are not going to the schools, these dollars are going to the families. This is a tax credit; it is not a voucher.”

It was Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, who took the Republicans to the mat over education funding and the claims – like that of Sen. Kruse – that the tax credit program was to help low-income Minnesotans.

“What the majority members are telling us right now, that this is about low-income children, about minority children, I am just shocked to hear this,” she said. “I want to remind you that we cut all funding for the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is given to the lowest income Indian children in Minnesota. We also canceled all of the funding for youth summer programs in the lowest income communities in Minnesota. We cut compensatory funding for the three largest districts in the state of Minnesota where we have the highest concentration of poverty. We also cut integration which allows predominately low income children to attend school outside Minneapolis and St. Paul districts. We also cut all the funding for caregiver support that provides funding for grandparents of children who are placed in out of home placement.”

She continued, “All of this funding, members, was for poor children and you just cut this funding, so do not come to us today that you want to provide public funding for private schools to support low income children, children of color because that is just not true.”

Finally, she said, “What you are doing is taking public dollars to go to private schools because you want to dismantle public education. That’s what you want to do. Just don’t lie about it.”

Torres Ray’s statement drew protests from Republicans who complained to Senate President Michelle Fischbach that Torres Ray was out of line. Fischbach offered a tepid admonishment before moving on with the vote on the amendment, which failed largely along party lines.

The Senate then passed the omnibus tax bill with the private school tax credit attached, also along party lines.