Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Where is the accountability?

A friend told me that Rep. Greg Hughes was interviewed last week on the Bob Lonsberry show when Lt. Governor Gary Herbert was the guest host. I missed the show but was glad to find the link to that day's show on the internet (http://www.knrs.com/cc-common/podcast/single_podcast.html?podcast=BobWeekdays.xml). Listening to it, I was pleased to hear the balance of views; Rep. Ralph Becker spoke first, opposing the plan, and Rep. Hughes spoke by telephone to support the plan. But one thing Rep. Hughes said struck me as strange.

In discussing the topic of having public accountability in private schools that accept vouchers under the plan, Rep. Hughes said, "There is accountability. You must be an accredited institution to be able to receive a voucher. The accreditation process for private schools is rigorous. It's one that goes into the curriculum, the certification of their teachers, and it's one of the benchmarks that people use when deciding what private school to use, and it's one that we do require here in Utah."

I've looked at the plan before, but Rep. Hughes was so forceful in making his point that I was sure I'd missed something, so I reviewed House Bill 148 again. On the most recent, even closer look at the bill, here is what I found:

When applying for a "scholarship" -- the bill's term for a voucher (which calls into question the state's definition of a "scholarship," a topic for another day) -- a parent must sign a statement stating, among other things,

"I acknowledge that

(1) A private school may not provide the same level of services that are provided in a public school.

(2) The private school in which I have chosen to enroll my child has disclosed to me the teaching credentials of the school's teachers and the school's accreditation status.

(3) I will assume full financial responsibility for the education of my scholarship student if I accept this scholarship."

So there's a reference to accreditation, but no requirement of it, in that provision. In signing such a statement, a parent is merely saying that the private school where he or she hopes to enroll his or her child has informed the parent of its "accreditation status." Of course, that status could be non-accredited, but by issuing this notice of non-accreditation to the parent, the private school has satisfied this part of the voucher plan.

A little later in House Bill 148 I found this reference:

"To be eligible to enroll a scholarship student, a private school shall: (i) provide, upon request to any person, a statement indicating which, if any, organizations have accredited the private school."

Again, it is a reference to accreditation, but not a state requirement that the private school actually be accredited -- accredited by anyone at all. In fact, the plan clearly contemplates that the private school in question, while receiving public funds, could hold no accreditation whatsoever; the provision only requires that the school give the parent -- and only if the parent asks -- a statement indicating "which, if any, organizations have accredited the school."

Of course, this is only one person's close, careful reading of the bill. Despite Rep. Hughes's assertion to the contrary, the plan includes no requirement that a private school be accredited by any organization, even a private school set to collect public funds through a voucher. If such a requirement exists, it doesn't exist within this plan, and this plan is the one that Utah voters will vote on in November. If Utah voters haven't read the plan for themselves, they should; it is posted on the internet at http://le.utah.gov/~2007/bills/hbillenr/hb0148.htm.

While Lt. Governor Herbert didn't stop to explore Rep. Hughes's assertion further, it was still good to hear him raise the issue that rests at the heart of some voucher opponents' case against the plan.

"It's not an apples to apples comparison, it's really apples to oranges. Public education in the traditional sense has to take whoever's dropped off at the doorstep," Lt. Gov. Herbert said. "Private schools can discriminate, as far as who they take and what they take."

Later in the conversation, a caller asked about lawmakers' commitment to reduce class size, and Rep. Hughes offered an answer that may reveal where lawmakers' real concerns lie.

"It is a challenge," he said. "There are a couple of things that we fight in the legislature, one is better compensation for our hard-working teachers, the other is smaller class sizes, but oftentimes those are diametrically opposed propositions. If we have smaller class sizes, we need more teachers, and if we're not paying the teachers we have currently an adequate salary, paying them more, it becomes that much more challenging when we add to the ranks."

Half of Utah's new teachers leave within the first five years of their careers, either to go into the private sector or to go elsewhere in the country, in order to earn a higher salary than Utah pays its teachers, Rep. Hughes explained. Attracting and keeping good teachers with our current teacher salaries is a problem. But even if we pay our current teacher well enough to cause them to keep their career in Utah, the issue of growing class sizes isn't resolved unless and until we hire more teachers.

So within this brief note rests two problems and two solutions, all enunciated clearly by Rep. Hughes. To attract and keep good teachers, we should raise their salaries to a level competitive with surrounding states or with private-sector jobs that require similar education, credentials or experience. To reduce class sizes, we should hire more teachers.

If, as Rep. Hughes outlined, those are the two greatest problems facing our public education system in Utah, then is it clear to anyone why we are talking about shifting public tax dollars into private-school vouchers, rather than using them to establish competitive teacher salaries and hiring enough teachers that we really reduce class size? Upon a third careful reading of House Bill 148, I didn't find any provisions that address teacher salaries or class size, either.


Jeremy said...

I sometimes listen to that morning show just to get my blood flowing in the morning when I'm sluggish. I happened to be tuned in when this short debate took place and really appreciated the discussion.

Thank you for bringing up the point about accreditation. I remember being a little confused by Hughes assertion that it was required but soon forgot about that until today when I checked your site. Thanks for giving me some closure!

Referendum One said...

You're welcome, and keep up the good work yourself. I enjoy reading your updates.