Thursday, September 20, 2007

What secret donors gave $358,000?

With the help of another great reader, I've finally found the finance report given by Parents for Choice in Education. It shows four donors from outside Utah -- two from California, one from Wyoming and one from Virginia -- who gave amount from $1,000 to $5,000 each, and it shows one big donor from Utah: Patrick Byrne, who gave $90,000. That was in addition to the $17,500 the PCE PAC received from PCE Incorporated. So that leaves us still not knowing who gave the $230,000 that was transferred through PCE Incorporated to the PCE PAC, and who contributed the $128,000 that flowed through the PCE Foundation to pay legal fees to Parr Waddoups. That's a total of $358,000 that came from someone (or more than one entity) who is hidden from public view.

As I said yesterday, if I had that kind of money and passion for vouchers, I'd be happy to let the world know who was helping bring a voucher plan to them.

I also found the filing from PCE's political issues committee - the PCE PIC - and I'm going to take a closer look at those next. At a glance, it looks like their largest expenditure was $86,000 or so to Summit Consulting Group of Phoenix, Arizona, for a phone bank. That may be the company that did those nasty push-polls for PCE last month. I'll check my stack of notes again for that.

Meanwhile, someone sent me a thoughtful commentary from Washington County School District superintendent Max Rose that was published yesterday in the Spectrum here ( "The recent debate about vouchers has gathered a lot of attention in our state," he writes. "The debate is over the prudence of using our tax money - in the form of a voucher - to support private schools"

Many voucher supporters argue that private schools are somehow academically superior to public schools. But in July 2006 the National Center for Education Statistics published a report that basically indicated that there were little or no differences between public and private schools in terms of students' reading and math scores in the fourth and eighth grades on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) after controlling for differences in ethnicity, income, parental education, absenteeism, etc. (U.S. Department of Education, report number NCES 20060461).

The difficulty that many of us have with vouchers is not the fear of losing students to private schools. (An examination of the voucher formula reveals it will probably only benefit those few families that can already afford private school tuition.) The concern about vouchers has to do with accountability.

All students in Utah public schools are subject to the accountability provisions of the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (UPASS). Under UPASS students participate in assessments in math, language arts, and science at the end of each school year. In addition, students in the third, fifth and eighth grades participate in the nationally standardized Iowa Test of Basic Skills. All third-grade students are evaluated at the end of the year to determine if they are reading on grade level. Students in the 6th and 9th grades take the Direct Writing Assessment (DWA) each spring. Students in our high schools know that they will need to achieve a passing score of the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test (UBSCT) in order to receive a regular high school diploma.

All these measures, and more, are summarized into a UPASS School Report Card that is issued for every public school in Utah every year. Private schools have no such requirements. When publishing reports, private schools need not include scores of low performing groups - or they may choose not to report any results at all. Yet, our public schools are often compared with private schools based on scores. What scores? Did all the students participate? Public schools can answer these questions and stand ready to be accountable for the outcomes.

The UPASS accountability standards have been a great addition to public education in Utah. I believe it will allow us to continue to show that public education is a good investment. We can move forward if we use our resources wisely. Taking already scare educational funding and deluding it by issuing vouchers to private schools does not enhance accountability.

Aren't we all supposed to be interested in accountability?