Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Is it just a coincidence?

This note demonstrates, for one thing, the value of figuring out how to use the Utah Reporting System. If you're like me and didn't know it existed, I recommend that you set aside a couple of hours for trial-and-error. It really can be a sort of "Rosetta Stone" for connecting the dots between one odd thing and another. Here's an example of two dots being connected.

On October 20, 2004, Parents for Choice in Education (which has only one goal, to use funds collected from All Children Matter of Michigan and others to win passage of any sort of voucher plan in Utah, including the one on the November 6 ballot) paid $2,961.45 to a company called Majority Strategies. It was a payment for a piece of "direct mail" that would be sent to voters in the district of Sen. Scott Jenkins. I presume the "direct mail" asked voters in Sen. Jenkins's district to re-elect him to the state Senate. PCE listed the expenditure as an in-kind contribution on its campaign finance report at the end of 2004, and Sen. Jenkins's reported the contribution on his own report, although his report says he received the contribution on October 25. In any case, the dollar figure is the same, and it's recorded.

On today, September 5, 2007, Sen. Jenkins published in the Standard a guest commentary titled, "Vouchers empower parents."

Perhaps these two points are unrelated. I don't know what motivated Sen. Jenkins to write in support of vouchers in today's Standard. It is possible that, even if PCE didn't exist in our state, and even if All Children Matter of Michigan hadn't spent a lot of money to run pro-voucher legislative campaigns over the past few years, he might still have written his column in today's paper. I don't know that for certain.

What I do know for certain, thanks to the Utah Reporting System, is that PCE sent some mail to Sen. Jenkins's constituents in the last couple of weeks before Election Day in 2004, and he won re-election that year. And I know for certain that, today, there's a pro-voucher column with his name on it in today's Standard. You can see it for yourself here (

In that column, by the way, Sen. Jenkins argues that "the curriculum in public schools has become highly politicized," so Utahns should vote for the voucher plan in November. He writes, too, that in public schools, "the rights of parents are being weakened and undermined," in part because of what he calls the "the encroachment of government into almost every issue in our public school system," so Utahns should vote for the voucher plan in November.

(I'm trying to keep an open mind and continue to look for the objective facts that will help me reach a conclusion, but who is "government?" Isn't it us and the people we elect, like Sen. Jenkins? But that's a subject for another time.)

Sen. Jenkins's column focuses on parents, their rights and their empowerment, and it absolutely should focus on those things. He says that the voucher plan "truly empowers parents to decide the course of their children's education," so we all should support it. It's "pro-parent," he writes, because it "will simply give parents more choices." He even includes a quote from Milton Friedman on "empowering parents," and he says that "vouchers represent the ultimate empowerment of parents."

Here's what concerns me (aside from the point that neither Sen. Jenkins nor anyone else yet has written a column that explains, part by part, what it actually says in House Bill 148, the plan that's represented on the November 6 ballot): What concerns me is that I read another guest commentary just three weeks ago that also focused on parents, their rights and their empowerment, but which arrived at the opposite conclusion.

That parent wrote, "If parents choose to send their children to a school other than their neighborhood public school, they can now choose to do that and perhaps they should, but along with "Parental Choice" comes "Parental Responsibility." It comes down to control and supervision. Private schools are not public schools. If public funds are used there is a danger that private schools may become quasi-public schools. Neighborhood public schools on the other hand are taxpayer-supported and the control and supervision is in the hands of a public body, as it should be."

And like Sen. Jenkins, whose commentary is valuable because he's a member of the state Senate, the parent who wrote those words was a valuable contributor to the discussion as well, because he sits on the Utah State Board of Education. In addition, the Standard wrote then, Greg Haws is secretary and treasurer of the National Association of State Boards of Education, so he gets a bird's-eye view of these subjects from across the nation.

I re-read both of their columns closely this morning. While Sen. Jenkins's column emphasized that Utahns have a chance to "change the nation" by voting for the voucher referendum, Mr. Haws emphasized how and why Utah's public schools do what they do, and that parents have responsibilities. Mr. Haws wrote here on August 12 (,

I, and many like me, no longer have children in the public schools so for me the issue is not about my personal choice for my children, though I support others who have children in schools. I will pay taxes for the rest of my life to support public education in this state. As a taxpayer, in some ways I am helping to provide a "scholarship" to those children who attend the public schools. As a taxpayer I have an interest in what is being taught to those students receiving my scholarships.

One of my strongest concerns relating to the voucher proposal is that the Utah State Legislature is taking some of my "scholarship" money and giving it to parents to use in private schools (they may say it is not coming from the uniform school fund, but it is coming from our taxes). These private schools, by nature, set their own curriculum, hence they are private. They are not accountable to the taxpaying public for what they teach. They may even teach things that are harmful to our society at large. They promote their own private issues. If they are doing that now, and parents choose to educate their children in that manner, I have no right to question that choice. But if they do so with taxpayer's money, then they have crossed a line, and as a taxpayer I should have a say. I can't believe that the private schools in this state even want to start down this road; it is truly a "slippery slope".

The current bill tasks the Utah State Board of Education with the responsibility to administer this voucher program. This is a bad idea! Not that we can not or will not do this in an efficient manner, but it would place these private schools under our jurisdiction and control. Is this what is meant by parental choice? If parents want out of the public system, do they really want to enter another system that will eventually be controlled and supervised by the State?

Our public system is open to all students. Students need only enroll to attend a good neighborhood public school, they do not need to apply, and they do not need to pay tuition. Private schools on the other hand may pick and choose which students will be admitted. Private schools are under no obligation to accept special-needs children or children with learning or behavioral challenges.

You know what would be nice -- and even valuable to voters? It would be nice if someone with credibility looked at the objective facts of the voucher referendum, the objective facts of needs in Utah, the objective facts behind the rhetoric and political agendas, and who weighed the case point for point in public. And maybe -- maybe -- someone is about to do that. The Davis County Clipper executive director Rolf Koecher wrote yesterday that his newspaper is going to conduct a project that sounds like it might fit the bill. He wrote,

For a brief moment, there was a breath of fresh air coming from Capitol Hill after two of us took a trip to Salt Lake City last June to meet with Senate Pres. John Valentine. The concern of Clipper staff writer Doug Radunich and I was over what appeared an all-out effort by pro-voucher forces, the legislature and the Utah Attorney General to ram vouchers down the throats of the electorate. As a brief review, what had concerned us were:

• Pro-voucher candidates for the legislature and Utah School Board running for office without informing the public of their intent or that they had accepted money from out-of-state voucher lobbies. Even when we asked them directly, several gave only vague responses.

• What appeared as heavy pressure in the legislature to ramrod pro-voucher legislation through at all costs, again without transparency for the electorate.

• Worse yet, the “what were you thinking?” attempt to subvert a public vote on vouchers by passing a referendum-proof “amendment.”

• The Utah Attorney General’s defense of the above legislation, which is tantamount to endorsing this “hoodwinking” of the voters.

• An even uglier attempt to cram vouchers down the public’s throats by fiddling with the referendum process. In short, legislators said they’d abide by the public vote as long as they could “gerrymander” the results to their liking.

Thank goodness for the Utah Supreme Court’s intervention that restored sanity to the whole process. The court simply declared what I had always believed: The public will have the right to a straight up-or-down vote in November. And the issue will be decided by a statewide tally. It’s been the ugliest chapter in Utah legislative history that I can recall. That’s why Senate Pres. John Valentine’s position was such a breath of fresh air last June. He acknowledged that the public vote in November was the right thing to do and should be respected, no matter the outcome.

But then came Paul Rolly's report in the Trib that legislative leaders were summoning Salt Lake City lobbyists to form a conscript pro-voucher army. Mr. Koecher says here (,

My first concern is that overtly asking lobbyists for favors is never good because it puts the legislature in the position of “owing” return favors. My second concern is that legislative leaders simply haven’t learned the lesson dished out by the Utah Supreme Court. They’re still trying to find ways to subvert the public they’re supposedly trying to serve. My third concern is that the lobbyist-legislature alliance could result in future laws being passed that the public really doesn’t want in trade for a school voucher law that the public may not want. My fourth concern is that one of the legislative leaders reportedly involved in this deal is from Davis County: Sen. Sheldon Killpack of Syracuse.

Frankly, vouchers may be the greatest improvement to education in the past 100 years. But so far, pro-voucher forces have focused more on procedure and arm twisting than on enlightening us with the beauty of their position. We are, therefore, putting together an extensive analysis of voucher pros and cons. We’re doing it by asking voucher proponents and opponents to identify the top voucher benefits, or their greatest concerns, and give us their best arguments. Then we’ll publish a report that reflects the actual views of both sides. What happens next is what we would have hoped the legislature could support: Letting the public decide. If given straightforward facts, we are confident the voters will make the right choice in November.

Amen to that. I, for one, will be looking forward to that report.

P.S. While I prefer writing that looks at the substance of the idea, or that examines the ideologies and organizations supporting and opposing the referendum, I also appreciate writing that pulls back the curtain with incisive humor. Blogger CraigJ at Utah Amicus does that here ( and I recommend reviewing it. Beneath many of the "translations" there is a pearl of fact, sometimes of wisdom.