Friday, April 22, 2011

Win Win Win! Take the 700 Million Dollar Constitutional Challenge Win Win Win

In the next few weeks, I want you to help me analyze what I think are serious constitutional defects in Minnesota's school finance system.  I've been having a dialog with folks throughout the state who are in the "I've had enough" camp when it comes to the financial mess that is our public school finance.  More and more people are telling me that its time to challenge the constitutionality of our school finance system, and to force the legislature clean up the mess once and for all.   Some of the issues are pretty boring to read about--the law being pretty dang dry.   So, I decided to try to find a way make a dull topic a bit more interesting.  

To whet your interest in a bit of constitutional law, I'm offering  a reward to the person who accepts, and wins, the 700 million dollar constitutional law challenge.   You don't need to be a lawyer to take the challenge.  In fact, being a lawyer probably is going to get in your way.   All you have to do is to be a rational person, and that surely is what you are, or you wouldn't be reading my blog, right!  Can you anticipate a rational reason why the current system can be justified?  

What's the challenge?  What's the reward?  Be patient.  First the challenge, then the reward.    Here's the challenge:
The Challenge:  Provide a "Rational Basis" -- a rational reason -- for Minnesota's System for Special Education Funding, which will soon force local school districts to spend nearly $700 million ($700,000,000) per year more than the revenues provided to fund that spending.
To answer the question, you need to know how the special education finance system works.  The state makes districts spend more money than they have, and some way way more than others.  St. Cloud spends about nine million dollars more than it has, and can't do anything about it.  Anoka-Hennipen spends $28 million more than it has, and can't do anything about it.   If we get into financial difficulty, we can't cut the amount that we are spending.  We have to keep on spending the same amount, no matter how tough your financial difficulties get.  But that's not all. The state purposely increases the amount that school districts must spend, year after year, and purposely increases the difference between mandatory spending and revenues year after year.

Now your almost ready to answer the question.  But you need to know a bit more about the way special education finance system works.  Over the last several years, the Federal Government has been putting more money into special education and sending it out to the states.  So that helps, right.  No, actually, for many school districts, the State reduces the amount of state money paid to the local district for special education by more than the federal government's increase.
Now, when County or city government is required to run a program at a loss, the state gives the county or city government taxing power to make up the difference.  School districts used to have some taxing power to cover the deficit in special education funding too.  But the state took that taxing power away.  Why?  Because the legislature decided that the State should cover ALL of the special education costs not paid by the State.  But it didn't take very long for governors and legislators to forget about the revenue promise -- and the local districts were left with a growing unfunded deficit in special education, but no local revenue source to cover it.
Now this idea of a "rational basis," has a legal meaning.  If you are going to go for the big prize, you need to understand what it means.  "Rational Basis" is a legal term.  The House legislative research service explains rational basis as follows:
A rational basis test applies to economic regulation not involving suspect classifications and, thus, to most of the classifications involved in the tax laws.  In general, a classification has a rational basis and is constitutional, if it reasonably related to or has some rational relationship to the objective the legislature sought to achieve.  The rational basis test gives the legislature considerable flexibility in creating classifications.
So the idea is this.  Do you think that a court could look at the system I've described above and find a rational reason for setting things up that way.  Any reason? In order to convince me that there is a logical reason, any logical reason, for forcing school districts to spend $700 million more than they take in on special education. and keep growing the deficit more and more, year after year.

You get the idea.   The winner has to come up with a rational basis for the system.  By way of example, if I asked you to find a "rational basis" for the law that says that you can't build a glue factory in a residential neighborhood, you could say, "glue is too smelly; people can't live next to it."  Or, "glue fumes are dangerous to children."   But I wouldn't accept, "don't put anything that starts with a 'g' in a residential neighborhood."  Or, "I don't believe in glue." Or, glue is usually made by Republicans."   Those reasons aren't rational.

So that's the $700 million dollar challenge.  I call it the $700 million challenge, because that is the amount of the underfunding that is in the Dayton budget for 2012.  The republicans are proposing to make the deficit even larger.  They're both taking money out of special education, as if it were a government cash register, without allowing local districts to cut their spending or raising revenue to cover the cuts.  So I want you to assume that you were the judge in a court case and you were asked to sustain the system because it had a "rational basis," could you come up with one.

That's the challenge.  The reward.  We'll its not $700 million.  I'll publish the best and most creative answers in future blogs.  For your information, I've included the chart that shows the total mandated special education expenditures in Minnesota as compared to the total of all state and local revenue sources for special education.

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