Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Vouchers, Referendums, Lawsuits

If you haven't yet seen the petition to rescind the private school tuition voucher law that just passed, then here is your chance to consider it. Let me make a few points of my own before you make a decision.

Opponents of the law say that too few will take advantage of the vouchers, making it too costly for the state. However, in the same breath, they argue that it is, likewise, damaging to public schools.

Opponents may be right that few will use the vouchers in the current iteration. But, this cannot, logically, hurt public education if few use the program. It may hurt the bottom line of the state when it comes to administering dollars out of the general fund. But that damage will be limited, and we've got a virtual bomb shelter built around public education monies in this state. When all the checks get written, public education will keep its funding.

Here is a mental exercise that you can try at home to determine how successful the voucher program will be in its initial years. Ask yourself, and others, 'how many public schools can I name off the top of my head?' Now ask, 'how many private schools can I list?' Now, pull out a phone book and try to find the nearest private school. And, do likewise with the nearest public school.

What did you just learn? In Utah, we have far more familiarity with the public school system than we do with privatized education. This means that in these first, lean years, of a voucher system we will probably have very few takers. It will cost the state some money to administer, during these infant years, but we shouldn't abort just yet.

Give the proponents of vouchers time to prove whether the free market works in this setting. If this fails, then public schools will be faultless. If it works, then it can only be good for education in Utah.

And if my next thought has never occurred to you, then think about it now. What is good for private schools can also be good for public schools.


Davis Didjeridu said...

I am opposed to vouchers as a general concept, but also in this specific instance, because they lack accountability to see if they work. I have noted before that HB 148 does include a standard for testing, but that standard is vague. In five years, when the audits come around, there were will be no way to compare student performance in public and private schools because the tests will be so different. That apples and oranges comparison makes the voucher program unaccountable to the public, and will leave more questions than answers when it is audited. I have noted in my blog that this is the same problem that the lauded Milwaukee voucher program has; according to a Government Accountability Office report in 2001, neither the district nor state have funded student performance evaluations since 1995, "thereby losing data on program performance during the years when the program had grown the most."
Your post contains a logical error, though, when you point out that only few students will take advantage of the program. The fact that there are so few schools, with tuition higher than even the most generous voucher, keeps private schooling out of the hands of all but the wealthiest who can already afford it. I don't mind parents who choose to pay for private education, but I do mind when tax dollars subsidize a two-tier system of education, where only the rich can afford private schools--even when a voucher system is implemented.
My suggestion for those who want a voucher system: consider privately-funded voucher system, aka scholarships. I feel if the Parents for Choice people were as serious about giving choice, they would use their money for scholarships and not political action. Wonder how many students could have been enrolled in the last few years with the $500,000 PCE spent on elections?

Jesse said...

I've been absolutely bewildered at the hostility towards any meaningful change in our education systems coupled with blatant double-speak. "Our schools are fine" followed by "we're in a funding crisis!" "Nobody will use vouchers" paired with "vouchers will cost hundreds of millions of dollars." "We need education reform" along with "we like the way we're doing things." The double-talk shows desperation and a willingness to use FUD to sabotage what you perceive to be the enemy.

I'm with you: give vouchers 5 years and see what happens. If the results are positive or neutral, keep the program (not that the rabid anti-voucher crowd would acknowledge either). If it's a negative, I'll be first in line to say "dang, bad idea, let's scrap it."

Todd said...

There is no accountability with my tax dollars in this program. It doesn't even attempt to make sure that effort is made to make sure the students are educated.

Further, the idea that you could scrap an unsuccessful program after you create a constituency for it is a fantasy.

Finally, the main thrust of this program is not about educating students, it is about private businesses getting their hands into the taxpayer cookie jar.

It is fiscally irresponsible. I have no children and already pay for two school systems (public and charter), and now am being asked to pay for a third system that is designed not to educate, but to generate profit. I resent it and will fight it.

variable said...

I can't understand why people continue to spout the 'no accountability' line. Evidently, they hold parents in low regard and place the state as the all-knowing entity by assuming that government knows more than a child's mother and father. Baloney.

Frankly, I would bet that parents going through the hoops to get the voucher etc, are, generally, more involved in their child's education and will provide much more scrutiny. Further, how often does the state audit public schools and the teachers? A couple times a year for a limited amount of time (I doubt the auditors sit in the class for a few weeks). Parents, on the other hand, can provide a daily audit of their students. If they're not satisfied, the school looses the money and may eventually fold.

What happens in a public school if the teacher is poor or you child's needs aren't being met? You have no real redress - private schools immediately loose the money. Additionally, lousy private school teachers don't have a union and legal network to protect them.

Another bogus argument is the 'this is for the rich' line. Sorry, the rich couldn't care less, they can already send their kids to private schools and many still choose public schools. The vouchers make it much more likely for lower and middle class families to find a school which will best meet their needs.

I'm with Tyler - give this a few years. Yes, there will be a bottleneck for the first couple of years, but that will soon ease with demand. It will also be interesting to see how many non-traditional private schools emerge (such as those catering to the disabled etc). I much prefer my tax money going to parents than a bureaucracy.

Tyler Farrer said...

Davis D.,

"The fact that there are so few schools, with tuition higher than even the most generous voucher, keeps private schooling out of the hands of all but the wealthiest who can already afford it. I don't mind parents who choose to pay for private education, but I do mind when tax dollars subsidize a two-tier system of education, where only the rich can afford private schools--even when a voucher system is implemented."

Not all who send their kids to private schools are the wealthiest. I've been to a graduation for one private school where many pay scales were represented. It reminds me of the mobile home of a friend of mine in high school that leaned to one side from the weight of the large-screen T.V. and entertainment system, but hardly had room for a couch.

The areas to which we address our personal spending is, and always has been, a choice.

y-intercept said...

I made a list of private and charter schools in the Salt Lake area. Many of these schools are doing interesting things. The list is far from complete. We are starting to see a dynamic marketplace emerge.

Jeremy said...

For someone who claims to be a conservative you sure are acting liberal in supporting the idea of dumping taxpayer money into the private school market in hopes something good will pop out. Why waste all this money on funding a voucher program and defending it in court when we live in a state with one of the best public education systems in the country?

It doesn't make any sense to someone who really is fiscally conservative. You bitch and moan about a $10 fee in your recent post but are completely willing to have the government waste millions on a program Utah clearly doesn't need. What gives?

Tyler Farrer said...


I'm surprised that you don't see the distinction here. Milton Friedman pointed out that we presently both fund and administer education already. He suggested that it would be wise to "stimulate private arrangements" by providing a subsidy that moves the government away from administering education. This allows for a move away from a government administered system and towards a free-market system. It may be artificial, but it is the best move that could be made towards my conservative ideal.

I don't support the $10 fee because it is inappropriate to even suggest that the county has an obligation to provide for the transportation needs of the state when it is the state that decides how those dollars are spent.

Our commissioners were bamboozled into spending where it wasn't their place.

Jeremy said...


Friedman wouldn't have supported vouchers in a system where the public schools are functioning excellently in the first place. He was a pragmatic libertarian...not an ideologue. Pragmatism suggests that those on an ideological crusade for government subsidized private education should find a place where the public schools are failing...a place where their beloved program will be an improvement. Instead my tax dollars are being wasted by ideological zealots willing to trade fiscally responsible policy for ideological purity. No thanks.

Tyler Farrer said...


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce may disagree with you assessment of the state of education in Utah.

I see a "C" in Academic Proficiency, and a "D" in Truth in advertising about student proficiency. Utah is the perfect testing ground for this kind of program as we also have the lowest spending per pupil and the highest number of pupils per teacher.

Jeremy said...


The Chamber of Commerce study was based on the NAEP put out by the U.S. Department of Education. If you look at the actual test results you'll see that Utah's 4th and 8th graders surpassed the national average in every subject measured with the exception of writing. The Chamber of Commerce did have problems with the way Utah's testing procedures report our progress in relation to the NAEP but that has nothing to do with our actual education performance. You should also know that the study you cited includes the performance of private schools too so it really doesn't help your case much.

Utah has more graduates who are ready for post high school life than 90% of other states in the nation. We excel above nearly every other state in providing AP and college level education for vast numbers of our high schoolers. We do all this with lower per pupil spending on administration than any other state in the nation.

It is more than a little deceptive to claim Utah's schools are failing because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put out a study saying we're average. Look at the actual numbers and results. Better yet go to a local school and talk to teachers and administrators. Ask them your questions about how well our students are doing. Utah's schools are excellent. The last thing Utah's taxpayers need is a bunch of ideological voucher crusaders who are fundamentally opposed to government operated schools wasting our money.

I didn't put my kid into the local public school without doing tons of research on my own about whether or not she would be better off in private school. My research showed that I should be nothing but optimistic about my kids chances in our local public school based on past performance. With her first year nearly complete I can honestly say I have not been disappointed. Now you voucher supporters have me paying extra taxes to put other peoples' kids in private schools because you have some ideological compulsion that directs you to hate public schooling. As an actual parent of one of the kids this is all supposed to be about I can honestly say that your polemics and foolhardy policy positions are neither needed nor appreciated.

Tyler Farrer said...

"Now you voucher supporters have me paying extra taxes to put other peoples' kids in private schools because you have some ideological compulsion that directs you to hate public schooling."

Wow, Jeremy! That is lumping me in with the bunch. First, I have no hatred towards public schooling. Second, I am an "actual parent", with kids on their way to school in the next couple of years. So this is of direct interest to me, and not just an exercise in 'polemics'. Third, I did not say that Utah schools are failing, however, this is a grand testing ground for vouchers considering our demographics. My original point is that we have time to test this thing and if it doesn't work, then by all means, let's get rid of it!

I may yet put my kids in public school, and I know other voucher supporters, including Randy Smith at intend to keep their kids in public schools.