Monday, February 24, 2020

Montana and the Wall Between Church and State

Sarah Vowell is a fave of mine, with a fabulous grasp of US history and that special gift of being able to illuminate big ideas with the perfect specific detail, plus she has the gift of balance, of being able to recognize the god and the not-so-good, and most of, the gift of recognizing the humanity of the people she writes about. Her writing about colonial US history is excellent-- if you need a place to start, I'd go with The Wordy Shipmates, a look at the Puritans in America. For an extra treat, get her audiobooks-- she does her own reading and it's great. I would be quite happy if I grew up to be Sarah Vowell.

Sarah Vowell
I bring Vowell up because she was born in Oklahoma, but grew up and attended college in Montana. Last week, she wrote a piece for the New York Times about the Espinoza case, the case that will allow the Supreme Court to legitimize the use of public tax dollars for private religious schools (or not-- the Supremes could totally surprise me and go the other way).

If you are able to get past the paywall, you should go read the piece, because there's a whole  chunk of background that virtually every commenter on the case has simply missed.

Do Mr. Roberts and his eight co-workers fully appreciate the public-spirited grandeur of the winter of 1971-72, when 100 Montanans, including housewives, ministers, a veterinarian and a beekeeper, gathered at the state capital, Helena, for the constitutional convention, affectionately nicknamed the “Con Con”?

That was the occasion for the writing of the Montana constitution, the document that includes the idea that public money should not pay for private sectarian schooling. That's the law the Espinoza suit aims to gut, and voucher fans have characterized as "antiquated" and "Jim Crow for Christians." The lawsuit has been described as standing up to Blaine amendments, laws adopted by states that are pretty clearly anti-immigrant by way of being anti-Catholic. But that's not what was going on in Montana at Con Con, says Vowell.

The representatives arranged themselves not by party, but sat alphabetically, whioch strikes me as an awesome way to reorganize Congress or any other legislature. And they were not particularly God-averse-- many of the major players were clergy. Witness the very first sentence in the document:

We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.

What Con Con was particularly focused on was the public versus the private. You've heard of company towns, but Montana was viewed as a company state that wore the "copper collar" and controlled by the Anaconda Company. The Con Con delegates were committed to the public interest, and so public funds were to be spent only on public agencies.

Vowell points out that the dynamics of public education are different out West:

Article X, Section 1, of the ’72 Constitution proclaims that it is the duty of the state to “develop the full educational potential of each person.” That is an expensive ideal in a desolate wasteland. Public schools are supposed to be a volume business, but tell that to the Great Plains. The state of Montana has about 60,000 fewer inhabitants than the number of students enrolled in New York City’s public school system.

Kendra Espinoza
In Montana, the poorest schools have the smallest class size. Rural schools have single-digit class sizes-- not like single digit English class, but single digit sophomore class. Vowell recalls a friend who, as a first grader, rode her horse to a school where she and her brother were, one year, half the student body.

Espinoza, who wants to send her children to a private religious school that charges more for tuition than the University of Montana, says that public schools "have plenty of money." But Vowell points out that a surge in vouchers will not just move money from public schools to private schools, but from the rural areas to the cities.

The public schools the framers conjured ask the taxpayers to splurge on fairness, not privilege, to pull together, not away. That beekeeper, those clergymen and moms chartered a state in a republic where a first grader on horseback is supposed to be as big and important as the mountains.

If the result of Espinoza is a wave of voucher money, the result will be a Montana where your available choices for school will very much depend on your zip code.

1 comment:

  1. I came across the Espinoza case while researching previous Supreme Court cases involving similar issues. I agree that odds are good this Court will find some way to OK the transfer of public money to religious institutions. Whatever the specifics in this case, when I was in Oklahoma that largely meant helping middle class and upper middle class white kids avoid going to school with "undesirables."

    These are fascinating insights. I'm going to need to pay more attention to Sarah Vowell, who I think I remember from an old They Might Be Giants documentary (in connection to her roles w/ NPR or something). I'd have to go back and check, but in any case I had no idea she was from Muskogee or that she was a legit history type.

    Clearly I need to pay better attention!

    Great piece. Important topic. I'm not optimistic on this one, but I've been wrong before. Here's hoping we're both wrong on this one.