Sunday, September 30, 2007

What does House Bill 148 say (Part 2)?

The next important section of House Bill 148 offers "definitions" and "guidelines" for eligibility to receive state-funded incentives to enroll in private schools. A few are obvious, and others are just placeholders. "Board" means the State Board of Education, but "eligible private school" is going to be defined by a section a little later, it reads. And what does "income eligibility guideline" mean? It's the "maximum annual income allowed to qualify for reduced price meal for the applicable household size as published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture by notice in the Federal Register." (!)

"Parent" means a real parent or a legal guardian, and "scholarship student" means "a student who receives a scholarship under this part."

But not really, right? Since we've already concluded that a scholarship is an award granted to a student who has reached a certain level of academic achievement and wants to continue his or her education, and that this program has nothing to do with academic achievement, then "scholarship student" is a phrase that doesn't even belong in this statute. So we'll respectfully replace it with "incentive-through-voucher recipient" and we'll continue to replace "scholarship" with the more-accurate phrase, "publicly-funded private-school voucher."

Finally, "tuition" means "amounts charged for attending a private school, excluding fees for extracurricular activities or transportation to the private school." Notice that "tuition" is not defined at the cost of academic instruction -- how we define "tuition" when we're looking at a college or university -- but rather the "amounts charged for attending a private school," with some exclusions.

Then the sponsors repeat their contention that this is a "scholarship program":

83 53A-1a-804. Scholarship program created -- Qualifications -- Application.
84 (1) The Parent Choice in Education Program is created to award scholarships to
85 students to attend a private school.

Notice that it doesn't say that this voucher program is created to give parents a financial incentive to withdraw their children from public schools and enroll them in private schools, but that's exactly what it appears to be.

Then we get to some very important language, spelling out who qualifies for the public-funded private-school vouchers. These are the only criteria for qualification:

ONE: The student's custodial parent or legal guardian has to live inside Utah. So if wealthy, divorced parents living just across the border and paying for their child's attendance at a private school in that state now want to send their child to a private school in Utah because the child's tuition will be subsidized by taxpayers, then they only have to arrange for joint custody and move one parent to a legal address inside the Utah border.

TWO: A child has to be five years old before September 2, or under 19 years old on the last day of the private-school's school year, in the year that his or her parents want to enroll him or her in the private school. But if the student hasn't graduated but will be under 22 years old on the last day of his senior year at the private school, then he still qualifies for the voucher. (This seems strange to me. Either the cut-off age is 19 or 22, so why says it's both?)

THREE: At least ONE, but not necessarily more than ONE, of the following four statements has to be true:
A: The student was born after September 1, 2001
B: The student was enrolled full-time in a Utah public school on January 1 of this year.
C: The student was NOT a resident of Utah on January 1 of this year.
D: The student's parents reported income "less than or equal to 100% of the income eligibility guideline" in the calendar year before they request the voucher.

[So a student under 22 years old, who has always attended private schools in Colorado and moved to Utah after January 1 this year, and who hasn't yet graduated, would instantly qualify, regardless of his parents' incomes.]

[Or, a student enrolled in kindergarten this year on January 1, and attending first grade in a public school today, would qualify for a voucher to begin second grade in private school next year.]

[Or, a divorced mother living in Utah with custody of her student, whose earnings qualify the student for reduced-price lunch in public schools, would qualify for the voucher regardless of the father's income, even if the father was a multi-millionaire.]

[If I have misinterpreted and misapplied these four criteria in my examples, I welcome correction.]

And FOUR: The student couldn't have received a Carson Smith (Voucher) for Students with Special Needs. So, does this mean that only children who don't have disabilities can receive one of these public-funded private-school vouchers under House Bill 148? That certainly would ease the burden on some private schools to turn away the parents of children with disabilities. It's a good thing that public schools accept those children.

Under House Bill 148, a parent will have to apply for a voucher by June 1 for the next school year, and will have to supply documentation to the State Board of Education verifying their income. (But the Board can waive the deadline, so it's possible that a parent can apply for the voucher at any time during the year.) And the Board will announce by July 1 which parents will get the public-funded private-school vouchers for the coming school year.

The next part is so strange, when you think about all the services that public schools are accountable to offer under state and federal law, and the accreditation that public schools are accountable to earn and maintain under state and federal law. When a parent applies for the voucher under House Bill 148, he or she has to sign a statement saying:

113 "I acknowledge that:
114 (1) A private school may not provide the same level of services that are provided in a
115 public school.
116 (2) The private school in which I have chosen to enroll my child has disclosed to me
117 the teaching credentials of the school's teachers and the school's accreditation status.
118 (3) I will assume full financial responsibility for the education of my scholarship
119 student if I accept this scholarship.
120 (4) Acceptance of this scholarship has the same effect as a parental refusal to consent
121 to services pursuant to Section 614(a)(1) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20
122 U.S.C. Sec. 1400 et seq."

In essence, the law requires a parent to say,
ONE, I declare that a lower standard of service than the services provided by public schools under state and federal laws will be acceptable to me, in order to receive a voucher; and

TWO, the private school where I want to enroll my student may have told me that none of its teachers hold the same minimum level of education credentials or certifications that are held by all teachers in public schools under state and federal law, but I will accept that in order to receive a voucher; and the private school may have notified me that it doesn't hold the same minimum accreditation that public schools are accountable for maintaining in Utah and our region of the nation -- if it holds anything labeled "accreditation" at all -- but I will accept that in order to receive a voucher; and

THREE, I acknowledge that the value of this voucher may be far less than the actual tuition required by the private school where I will enroll my student, and I accept that I will be financially liable for the difference, however small or great, and for the cost of expenses not included in the school's tuition, and for the cost of transportation to and from the school; and

FOUR, I acknowledge that by accepting these conditions and this voucher, I waive my rights and my child's rights to the services guaranteed by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and provided in public schools.

That's a lot to accept, acknowledge and declare, but that's exactly what House Bill 148 will require.

And, finally, if a parent decides for any reason that one private school is insufficient, they can re-enroll their student in another private school and not lose any of the voucher value.

That's enough for this section of the statute. In another note I'll look at what defines an "eligible private school."