Thursday, September 6, 2007

Why not use real, objective data?

Yesterday I read closely the guest commentary offered by Sen. Scott Jenkins in the Standard; today the same space in the Standard is occupied by Paul Mero, leader of the Sutherland Institute. Like Sen. Jenkins, Mr. Mero writes in support of the voucher referendum. And just as I came away from Sen. Jenkins's commentary wondering why he didn't just describe the objective facts of Utah's needs, and the objective facts about the voucher plan on November's ballot, I had a similar feeling after reading Mr. Mero's item this morning. But more disappointing in today's note was Mr. Mero's reliance on what voucher programs have or haven't done in other states across the country, when we prove time after time that Utah isn't "like" other states across the country in so many ways, and his reliance on sources that anybody -- even I -- could find questionable with just a couple minutes of research on the internet. Again, if both sides of this discussion could stick to what the objective facts are, and what the voucher plan does and doesn't say, we would all be better informed.

To open his commentary, Mr. Mero professes concern here ( for Utah's minority populations, and he may well be concerned for Utah's minority populations. But last week, another writer, Eric Jacobsen, offered data that suggests vouchers don't help minority populations perform better in private schools than they perform in public schools. To disprove Mr. Jacobsen's point, Mr. Mero refers to his sources.

Dr. Jay P. Greene, endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, a Tufts undergrad and Harvard Ph.D., referenced by Mr. Jacobsen, found that based on their benefits these voucher programs should be recommended for continuation if not expansion.

I came across the name of Dr. Greene a couple of weeks ago when trying to figure out who was behind the Heartland Institute, another pro-voucher organization. Here's what I wrote on August 22:

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...

(And by the way, when I asked who in Arkansas had $10 million to devote to such a narrow purpose as this, I had forgotten the folks in Bentonville, who certainly have a lot of money, and who make no secret of their love for vouchers.)

So now that we see who Mr. Mero is quoting to support his argument, and we know the point of view of that expert and how he comes to that point of view, we can read Mr. Mero's text more clearly. He writes,

Across the board in these studies, African-American students do better in private schools with a voucher. That's good news in anticipation for what will occur here in Utah. In those studies, African-Americans comprise the largest demographic population in the cities where vouchers have been implemented.

But again, objective studies don't support Mr. Mero's assertions. Since it took me a little while to find these sources, I'll mention them again although I've mentioned them once before.

Washington, D.C. has a large African-American student population, and it has a voucher program. So it makes a perfect subject for objective study. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education published a study of that program, and it found no significant difference in the academic achievement of students attending private schools on a voucher and students attending public schools. That study is here ( It can hardly be argued that the U.S. Department of Education is biased against vouchers in general, so the fact that it drew this conclusion and released it to the public may be important.

But Washington isn't the only example, and the U.S. Department of Education isn't the only organization doing objective studies of voucher plans. Both Cleveland, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have voucher programs, and the U.S. General Accounting Office published a study of their effectiveness in 2001. Like the study of Washington's voucher program, this one found no significant difference in the academic achievement of students attending private schools on a voucher and students attending public schools, in Cleveland or in Milwaukee. And the Milwaukee program is more than a decade old now, so it has had plenty of time to demonstrate any edge over public schools. The Cleveland and Milwaukee study is found here (

Then there's the report published in the Christian Science Monitor last year here ( It reported

The voucher program has given new life to venerable Catholic and Lutheran schools in the city, and has spurred the creation of dozens of new schools - many of them religious - that rely solely on voucher students. All told, about 70 percent of the voucher schools are religious. Some of those schools, like Hope, show signs of excellence, but not all.

In one of the worst instances, a convicted rapist opened a school, which has since shut down. Reporters from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tried to visit all 115 schools then in the program last year, and found a mixed bag. Nine schools refused to let reporters in, and the paper cited "10 to 15 others where ... the overall operation appeared alarming when it came to the basic matter of educating children."

One school was opened by a woman who said she had a vision from God to start a school, and whose only educational background was as a teacher's aide. Others had few books or signs of a coherent curriculum. Yet they've been able to enroll students.


Nationally, studies on vouchers have been mixed. A few showed signs of improved student achievement and evidence that competition improves public schools. Others showed negligible difference. "The evidence to date is very mixed," says Jack Jennings, director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. "For [the] sake of kids ... it would be good to have an objective analysis."

Smaller voucher programs currently exist in Washington, D.C. and Cleveland, while Florida and Utah have specialized ones that target students with disabilities. A larger Florida voucher program was declared unconstitutional by that state's supreme court earlier this year.

"People feel good about having choice," says Martin Carnoy, a professor of education and economics at Stanford University. "But most of what they're having is the choice to move into a private school that is not so different from the public school they left."

If I can find these objective studies and investigations by the media with just a couple of hours of searching on the internet, anybody can.

Mr. Mero writes, "For regular Utahns this means that vouchers work everywhere they have been tried for those who have needed them most." But this statement is patently untrue; there is objective data that disproves his statement, and he offers no objective data to support it. If he offered even one credible study or report from a disinterested source, then we could hold it up next to others and weigh their points on the merits. But he makes no attempt at all, which is disappointing.

He continues, "We need the Utah voucher program to work for all struggling minority and low-income students who fall into that deplorable statistic of four out of 10 not graduating. We are fortunate that the Utah voucher program is exactly designed to serve these students."

I would be more convinced of his argument if he supported it with real, objective facts from credible sources, and if he pointed specifically to the parts of House Bill 148 that will produce the results he imagines. But he doesn't do that. Rather, he urges Utahns to adopt the plan because it will set a precedent -- becoming the first statewide universal voucher program in America. He writes,

It is time that we, Utahns, accept our role in educational history to lead the nation in helping children who truly need it most.

If only I believed we were all primarily focused on "helping children who truly need it most."


Kathy said...

The Dept of Education released a study last year that showed public schools outperformed private ones. I posted something about it on my blog if you care to check it out. The link to the NY Times is old and they want you to pay for it now, but you could probably Google the study and find it online.

DeVos spearheaded a Michigan ballot proposal to use public school funds for vouchers for private/charter schools in 2000 and it was soundly defeated by 69%. He also spent $35 million of his own funds to run for governor last year. He was defeated by 14%.

The man (and the family) has deep pockets and heavily supports many Christian groups, among them Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and the American Family Association. He and his family are also one of the biggest contributors to the Republican Party.

Here's how one Michigan blogger described DeVos' motivation:

DeVos's multi-million dollar efforts are not primarily a campaign for addressing the economy or for Michigan jobs, they're a crusade for the control of the state and for the imposition of "traditional values"-- which is insider code for a very narrow spectrum of behaviors and moral precepts which DeVos's followers have long sought to impose on the citizens of Michigan via the "Foundation for Traditional Values" (FTV) and its "sister" organization the campaign machine called the "Citizens for Traditional Values" (CTV)."

Here's another link you can check out. Also, if you use the search bar at Michigan Liberal and type in DeVos or All Children Matter, you can bring up more information and links to articles in other places.

DeVos and his family aren't too well-liked in Michigan by moderates and liberals (and also many Republicans), but his deep pockets have bought him a lot of influence. One person tried to run against him in the primary last year but quickly dropped out. DeVos started blitzing our airwaves with political advertising 9 months before the election, and he spent $35 of his own money to run for governor. How could any Republican hope to run against that kind of money on a state level?

Check out the links I've given you, and good luck. If I think of anything else, I'll drop by and leave you a comment.

Kathy said...

Metro Times is an independent paper in Michigan that reported on DeVos and his vouchers several times. Search them for more articles, but here's a link to an article that asks a question:

Why are vouchers so important?

There is, of course, an obvious explanation: The DeVos family has a deep, abiding concern for the children of this state, wants to see them educated in the best possible manner, and views the choice and competition offered by vouchers as the way to do that.

And then there is a more cynical, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, possibility. [...]

In other words, follow the money and what you find is that the DeVos family embodies both aspects of the right wing, promoting strident social conservatism and an unfettered marketplace with almost equal vigor.

On the economic front, the appeal of vouchers for fiscal conservatives has been on the map since at least the early 1960s, when economist Milton Friedman wrote Capitalism and Freedom. As noted by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Alex Molnar, Friedman was the first to posit that vouchers were a "way of getting the government out of public education." In his view, an educational market would be much more efficient at allocating educational resources than a system of government-run schools.

With the federal and state governments now ladling out hundreds of billions of tax dollars every year on public education, Friedman’s position is more popular than ever with eager entrepreneurs eyeing a windfall of unprecedented proportions if they can convince the public that vouchers are the way to go.

Then add in the fact that privatization will deplete both the ranks and coffers of the teachers unions – stalwart backers of Democratic candidates always – and you have the makings of a right-wing wet dream.

Momma said...

Just yesterday I was given a 44 page essay by Paul Mero and his Sutherland Institute.
I haven't taken the time to read the whole essay but I was stopped at the first few paragraphs. They treat the whole of the voucher question as "this or that": "Are we really a 'voucher' people? Or are we a 'one size fits all' people? Is our education identity controlled by special interest groups, such as teachers unions or the business community? Or is our education identity a reflection of our families and culture?"
I think that I could read all of the essay and find much to agree with. Utahans delight in being peculiar people and are anxious to innovate and tailor their institutions. My problem is with this very first assumption -- that the reason someone opposes vouchers is that they believe that Public Education is the best fit for all children. This is not so.

The primary reason that education is a priority to the governing of a nation, is that it is important to prepare the rising generation for citizenship. Secondary to this, although assumed by many to be the first or sole priority, is education as a means to economic development. In either case, the nation is convinced that education is so important that it grants the use of public funds to this purpose. The responsibility of funding public education belongs to government. It has never and should never stand in the way of reasonable alternatives to its public school system. That, however, doesn't mean that government has the responsibility of funding these alternatives.
If the legislature has funds to improve education, they should put it where their responsibility lies.

The other problem I had with Mr. Mero's pamphlet was the way he used recognized religious connections give the appearance of approval. I think that Dallin Oakes would probably be dismayed to see his quote used as a frontispiece.

John Moeller said...

Wow. I'm glad someone is doing the research you're doing. Even one reading of the bill for me raised a lot of questions.

I'm trying to help raise awareness in what little way I'm able, so I added a link to here on my blog.

Thanks for watching this.

Kathy said...

For other viewpoints on the motives behind vouchers, check out People For the American Way. There are examples of the disabled and poor being left behind. In fact, here's a quote from their website:

The Heritage Foundation has expressed hope that “vouchers could limit how much taxpayers must pay to educate the disabled and begin a movement toward cost containment.”

Before voting in favor of vouchers, taxpayers need to ask questions.