Saturday, November 06, 2010

SCOTUS debates tax credit for religious schools

Deciphering the constitutional principle that government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’’ is almost always a guarantee of a divided Supreme Court.

And so it was again yesterday as the justices reviewed an Arizona program that lets taxpayers send part of their state taxes to organizations that provide millions of dollars in scholarships to private religious schools.

The court’s liberal members sharply questioned whether the program is just a way for the state to provide tax money to religious schools and noted that it almost certainly would be unconstitutional if the contributions came directly from the state.

Conservatives indicated that the program offers just a different version of the widely accepted practice of providing tax breaks for people who make charitable contributions.

The Obama administration weighed in on the side of Arizona and argued that taxpayers challenging the program do not have the right to bring the lawsuit. So absolute was the government on the latter point that it seemed to take the nation’s former top appellate lawyer — now Justice Elena Kagan — by surprise.

Kagan told her former deputy, Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, that he was advancing a “silly and fictional’’ interpretation of the court’s past decisions on what taxpayers must prove before they can challenge a government spending decision.

For 13 years, Arizona has allowed residents to send up to $500 of what they owe the state in income taxes — $1,000 for a married couple — to a private “student tuition organization.’’

The organizations, which get about $55 million a year, provide scholarships to private schools. The organizations are allowed to limit scholarships to students at private religious schools.

Some taxpayers sued, saying the structure effectively forces parents who want the scholarships to send their children to religious schools.

Katyal told the justices that lower courts should not have let the taxpayer suit go forward. Because they did not participate in the program, he said, “not a cent, not a fraction of a cent’’ of their money went into any religious school’s coffers.

Taxpayers generally are not allowed to sue over government spending. But the court in Flast vs. Cohen in 1968 made an exception for spending alleged to violate the Establishment Clause. “Isn’t the underlying premise of Flast vs. Cohen that the Establishment Clause will be unenforceable unless we recognize taxpayer standing?’’ Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked.

Katyal said no, adding that he does not think any taxpayer had the right to challenge the Arizona program. But whether the money involved is even state money is the heart of the argument.

Paul Bender, who represented residents challenging the program, said it is different from a more traditional charitable donation, where the donor receives a tax deduction. “When a taxpayer makes a charitable deduction, that charitable deduction is made from the taxpayer’s money,’’ he said. But the money at stake here is raised by the state income tax and owed to the state.

Some justices said they were not sure about such a distinction. “I must say, I have some difficulty that any money that the government doesn’t take from me is still the government’s money,’’ Justice Anthony Kennedy said.

The court already has ruled that parents may use government vouchers to send children to private secular and religious schools, and some conservative justices argued that Arizona’s program is no different.

But Bender said the difference is that with vouchers, the state gives money to parents, and they make the choice. In Arizona, he said, the money goes to the tuition organizations, some of which make it available to parents only if they send their children to religious schools.


Dumbing down in Arizona

It's all over but the post-mortems as the politicos and pundits do their endless thing after every election, analyzing and re-analyzing the entrails to explain the results and predict the future.

Despite all the hoopla as the returns poured in, a far more important, and formative, election was held here in Arkansas weeks ago -- part of a disturbing national trend. It took place on Thursday, October 14, on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Last week's midterms may determine the country's course for the next a couple of years, but this vote could shape a couple of generations.

Because in this referendum, the faculty of the university's college of arts and sciences decided to hollow out its curriculum. By a 2-to-1 vote -- 75 to 37 -- the faculty agreed with the administration to cut the core requirements for undergraduate students from 66 credit hours to only 35, or just about in half.

Why? To assure that the university will grant more degrees. Never mind whether the degree will be worth as much in the future; what counts is the degree itself, the paper credential, the sheer number of college graduates in the state, not how well they're educated. A degree is a degree, right? Who'll know the difference?

What matters isn't the quality of the education a student may receive, but the number of diplomas granted. Because the more degrees per capita, the more economic development. The statistics and graphs and pie charts and PowerPoints all say so. The more degrees, the higher per capita income. Correlation is causation!

So let's churn out more degrees and the state will prosper. This theory is also known as ignorance is bliss. There are few things more frightening, as Goethe noted, than ignorance in action. Unless it is assuring that future generations will be more ignorant still.

The news story that reported the faculty's vote noted that the university's core curriculum "is known for being thorough and extensive." Make that was known. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni may have put the University of Arkansas on its A list when it came to course requirements, along with schools like Baylor, the University of Texas and the City University of New York.

To the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fayetteville, William Schwab, the old curriculum was "bloated." And had to be cut down to size.

So now, for example, physics and biology majors may not need to have a foreign language. Why, sure. Why should students in the sciences need a foreign language any more than students in the humanities -- literature, say, or history -- need to know anything about biology?

Under the new regime, each department can designate its own required courses. The common core of courses that all students of the arts and sciences at the university once shared will be split up and dealt out among the different departments, like the spoils of war.

Jose Ortega y Gasset saw all this coming long ago -- in "The Revolt of the Masses" (1930) -- when he called it "the barbarism of specialization." The phenomenon will be well known to anyone who was ever buttonholed by some specialist so well trained in his own field that he considers his ideas about all other subjects authoritative. For example, the financier who knows how the country should be run, the politician who considers himself an intellectual, the doctor who knows everything about everything. ... The barbarian as specialist is a familiar enough type. They're everywhere.

To quote Ortega, whose words from the last century still resound so powerfully in ours, if only anyone were listening:

"The specialist 'knows' very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest. ... For previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought under either of those two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter his specialty; but neither is he ignorant because he is a 'scientist,' and 'knows' very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line. And such in fact is the behavior of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitudes of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency...."

No one is more of a specialist today than the educantist who is bent on reducing the widest spheres of knowledge to his own narrow limits and obscure vocabulary. The barbarians of specialization are no longer at the gates; they're in the citadel. They're even in charge of administering it. And their will must not be defied. To quote the dean's statement after the faculty vote: "It's behind us now. We can move forward in creating a new core." No doubt a specialized one.

Yet there were members of the faculty who stood fast in defense of the old requirements. The university's mathematics department passed a resolution against this mutilation of the university's core requirements. And then there were the valiant Thirty-Seven who voted against it at this meeting of the faculty. One thinks of Cavafy's poem:

Honor to those who in their lives are committed and guard their Thermopylae. Never stirring from duty; just and upright in all their deeds, but with pity and compassion, too . . . always speaking the truth, but without rancor for those who lie. And they merit greater honor when they foresee (as many do foresee) that Ephialtes will finally appear, and in the end the Medes will go through.

Despite those who defended their academic honor to the end, the barbarians have broken through once more, as they have again and again at universities across the country that have chosen to engage not in education but deconstruction, and for whom the old standards with their height and breadth are but outdated impediments.

For these bureaucrats, the task of the new, improved university is to issue more and more degrees, and so produce more and more ranks of learned ignoramuses, certified specialists in their own tiny, cramped, isolated, thought-proof compartments, certain that they know best. If you seek them, just look in the administrative offices.


British schools given the right to fire anti-immigration teachers

Headteachers will be given new powers to sack teachers who are members of the BNP or other 'extremist' groups. The previous government ruled out banning BNP members from teaching after an independent inquiry decided it would be 'disproportionate'.

But Michael Gove, the education secretary, said he couldn't see how membership of the far-right party 'can co-exist with shaping young minds'. His decision to overturn the existing rules follows the case of a BNP activist who used a school laptop to post comments describing some immigrants as 'filth'.

Adam Walker, a teacher at a school in Houghton-le-Spring, near Sunderland, wrote on an online forum that Britain was a 'dumping ground for the filth of the third world'. But he was cleared of racial and religious intolerance by a disciplinary panel in June.

Mr Gove told The Guardian: 'I don't believe that membership of the BNP is compatible with being a teacher. 'One of the things I plan to do is to allow headteachers and governing bodies the power and confidence to be able to dismiss teachers engaging in extremist activity. 'I would extend that to membership of other groups which have an extremist tenor.'

The move was welcomed by the NASUWT teaching union. General Secrertary Chris Keates said: 'I hope this is something Michael Gove takes forward as quickly as possible. 'It is an important part of safeguarding the interests of young people.'


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