Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Who are these people?

In today's DesNews, Bruce Daniel of Vernal asks who the "anti-voucher organizations" are (,5143,695202971,00.html), which is a fine question to ask. If I could, I'd send Mr. Daniel the link to my notes of Monday, when I charted the information I'd found on the internet about the coalition of Utah voters allied against the voucher plan.

But I particularly liked his assertion that "Libertarians would say a parent has every right to know who is pushing whatever educational agenda so they can make informed decisions on where they want their children educated and by whom." It's an egalitarian notion, one that we all should take to heart. With that in mind, I'd like to spend some time soon looking at both sides, sketching what can be found about exactly who is bringing exactly what into Utah and its discussion about education and the proposed voucher plan. I think we understand how the anti-voucher movement took root and grew this past spring, and even its origins among parents, teachers and community leaders during the past several years. But the roots of the pro-voucher movement in Utah are not as clear. Paul Rolly of the Trib has mentioned this a few times, so I hope to review his columns and others I can find.

And Kent Overly of Draper referred in yesterday's Trib to a note published last week by Michael Van Winkle, also in the Trib, about the separation of church and state ( ). Breaking down the issue into its basic parts, Mr. Overly asks a salient question: "Should the taxpayers of Utah be forced to contribute taxes to parents who choose an alternate education for their children?"

But Mr. Overly then asks a much sharper question, one noticing that Mr. Van Winkle wrote his letter from "The Heartland Institute" in Chicago, Illinois. Mr. Overly asks, "And Utahns, shouldn't we ask why someone in Chicago is so interested in a little old law in Utah?"

Good question. I remembered seeing Mr. Van Winkle's letter last week but admit that his Chicago address escaped me, so I reviewed his letter this morning ( ). He writes, "Voucher opponents in Utah are getting desperate. They are arguing once again that school vouchers violate the separation of church and state..."

In fact, a close reading of our governing documents suggest that whether or not the voucher plan violates a theoretical separation of church and state, it does seem to violate the Utah Constitution itself, as I've mentioned before.

But to follow Mr. Overly's point, I searched for some information on the Heartland Institute, to try and understand why "someone in Chicago is so interested in a little old law in Utah," as he put it. It turns out that the Heartland Institute's roots in the voucher movement across the country go pretty deep. It publishes a newsletter called "School Reform News," which reprinted this summer an editorial by Paul Mero from the Sutherland Institute, titled "Vouchers Subsidize Parents, Not Schools." In it, Mero says, among other things, that he saved Utah taxpayers about $360,000 by home-schooling his six children, and that home-schooled children make better basketball players than public school students. You can read the whole editorial here .

In the current issue of School Reform News, however, there's an article titled, "What Can We Learn from the Universal Voucher Law in Utah?" by three men who work in the Arkansas Department of Education Reform. I wondered if this office was affiliated with the Arkansas Department of Education, since its name is so similar. What I thought would be a simple google search led to a few more steps. Is nothing what it says it is anymore?

At the office's own webpage,, I learned that it is not affiliated with the Arkansas Department of Education, but with the University of Arkansas's College of Education and Health Professions. It sounded perfectly legitimate -- a public university serving a public interest -- until I read further.

The office's webpage reads, "The Department of Education Reform is the newest department in the College of Education and Health Professions, established on July 1, 2005. The creation of the Department of Education Reform was made possible through a $10,000,000 private gift and an additional $10,000,000 from the University’s Matching Gift Program. This gift is one of the largest ever received by a college of education in the country. With these resources the department has six endowed professorships, ten doctoral fellowships, and funds for research and projects."

So an unnamed donor with an interest in "education reform" gave a gift of $10 million to the University of Arkansas, which matched the gift with public funds and opened a brand-new department whose products now include papers to be published by the Heartland Institute. And for that $10 million gift, they got a staff of six professors, 10 graduate students and various research aid to set up their operation. (Who in Arkansas would have $10 million to devote to such a narrow purpose, and would not want to give it publicly?)

Its director is Jay Greene. And Mr. Greene's biography, which is available on the public website, lists a good many articles he's written or co-written, with titles such as "Vouchers in Charlotte," "The Hidden Research Consensus for School Choice, Charters, Vouchers, and Public Education," "Private Schooling and Political Tolerance," "Private Schools and the Public Good," "Effectiveness of School Choice: The Milwaukee Experiment," "Sex, Drugs, and Delinquency in Urban and Suburban Public Schools," "The Education Freedom Index," and "A Survey of Results from Voucher Experiments: Where We Are and What We Know."

Now that we understand the point of view adopted by Mr. Greene and the Arkansas Department of Education Reform, it makes perfect sense that one of his graduate students, his deputy director and a research associate should write a new article called "What Can We Learn from the Universal Voucher Law in Utah?" and that it is published in School Reform News by the Heartland Institute. The article is brief ( ); it draws some comparisons between the universal voucher law passed by the Utah legislature and voucher plans enacted in the South American nations of Colombia and Chile.

Here is one of their observations:

"If implemented, Utah's voucher plan will be wholly unique. For one, the plan is universal only in regard to opportunity, since it doesn't force families to make a choice, as Chile's plan does. Families can continue to attend their assigned school as if the voucher program didn't exist. The Utah plan also has graduated voucher amounts, ranging from $500 for the wealthiest individuals to $3,000 for the most disadvantaged. Vouchers are available only for use in private schools, so only children of families interested in private school, dismayed enough with their current public school, and financially secure enough to make up any difference between the voucher and tuition costs, will use it. This scenario by no means describes a market-based K-12 education system."

And here's another.

"Martin Carnoy's 1998 study of Sweden and Chile's national voucher programs analyzed the effects they had on traditional public schools. In Sweden, the research suggests, the voucher program "hardly touched public education," because public schools are generally held in high regard. In Chile, however, private schools were deemed to be better than public schools, and vouchers caused a 'flight from public education.'

"Carnoy found the effects of vouchers depend on the public's perceptions of traditional public schools. Public schools in Utah are generally held in high regard, and it appears likely that few Utahns would flee the public school system. Hence, if Carnoy's findings are credible, it may be difficult for researchers to ascertain vouchers' possible effects on public schools elsewhere."

Taking all of this into account, it looks like Mr. Overly's question was appropriate and his answer was right: "And Utahns, shouldn't we ask why someone in Chicago is so interested in a little old law in Utah? It's because it has broader and sweeping connotations for this national debate on vouchers."