Monday, October 29, 2007

Is KSL's reporter a voucher accomplice?

One of the reasons I thought the Utahns for Public Schools representative, Lisa Johnson, did a better job of presenting her case than Richard Eyre in last week's "debate" on KSL was because she was quick and effective at rebutting his arguments with clear, concise facts and data. His "gee-whiz" folksiness and his crumbling cookies didn't overcome ready facts, ably delivered. A good example of this involved KSL itself. When given the chance by the moderator, Mr. Eyre leaped onto the "true-false" report done by KSL's Richard Piatt and reminded viewers that Mr. Piatt judged two UTPS commercials to be false but said two Parents for Choice in Education ads were true.

But Ms. Johnson took issue with that report and, as I recall, knocked down Mr. Piatt's findings one by one. If I had a transcript of that conversation, I'd post it to illustrate my point, but I don't. I only recall that Ms. Johnson took the stuffing, piece by piece, out of that "true-false" story. In the end, she was convincing and Mr. Eyre was not.

Now there's a new chapter to the "true-false" story. Mata Hari reported here ( on Friday that PCE is sending out mail that quotes Mr. Piatt's report and uses his graphics ("FALSE" stamped across the faces of classroom teachers). Mata Hari says she "went in search of setting the record straight and came across a letter from State Board of Education Chair Kim Burningham to the News Editor at KSL."

"I hope that KSL will do something about this, and that after further review, Piatt will issue a retraction. I sure dislike seeing a TV station being purposely used to distort the facts," she writes.

Sure enough, the letter from Mr. Burningham took apart, piece by piece, Mr. Piatt's report just as Ms. Johnson did in the "debate" with Mr. Eyre.

For example, Mr. Piatt reported, “During this five-year trial period, the program is an 'experiment.'”

But even I know, just from reading House Bill 148, that there's no "trial period." If voters approve Referendum 1, it's enacted for good, unless or until the legislature chooses to repeal the law and the governor signs the repeal.

Now, for sure it's an experiment -- "most definitely a risky and costly experiment," as Mr. Burningham puts it -- but Mr. Piatt's report leaves the viewer thinking that there's a trial phase and if the plan doesn't work for Utah families, it will naturally fade away. The fact is, it'll be law -- it won't just "fade away." Mr. Burningham writes,

...there is no sunset date and no termination or reaction to the study is required. No language exists requiring the legislature to reauthorize the program at any time in the future. It just continues.

In the UTPS commercial, the 2006 Teacher of the Year says, "Private school vouchers take resources away from public schools." But Mr. Piatt reported that she wasn't telling the truth. "In a financial sense, that's false," he said.

But in a fact-based reality, it's certainly true. Everyone seems to agree that because House Bill 148 sets aside "mitigation money" so that public schools wouldn't (in theory, although this hasn't been really explained) lose the per-pupil funding it gets as children are taken out of public schools and enrolled in private schools, that mitigation money goes away after five years. Then, schools go right back to being funded -- poorly, let's remember -- on a per-pupil basis. Yet schools' overhead costs are the same: the cost of buildings, maintenance, utilities, staffing, etc. The bottom line is that the voucher plan, then, would result in a loss of funding to public schools.

As Mr. Burningham writes,

The Legislative Fiscal Analyst has estimated that the voucher program will cost the state $429 million over the next 13 years. The fact is that every dollar spent on voucher schools is a dollar that is not going in to the public classroom. [, Table 8; Salt Lake Tribune, March 8, 2007.]

The “mitigation monies” outlined in HB 148 are only for the first five years after a student leaves the school. So, while the cost of running a school – paying the teachers, the rent, the support staff, the electricity bill – remains much the same, the budget the school has to do those things will diminish.

Furthermore, while there may be some savings to schools during the first few years of the program, as private school students are added on down the line public school districts will experience a significant drop in funding as the cost of the voucher program balloons from $9 million to over $70 million by 2020. This is because all private school students by year 13 of the program will be receiving state money – whether or not it makes a difference to their family in being able to afford private school tuition. The $429 million estimated by the Legislative Fiscal Analyst as the cost to the state over the next thirteen years far outweighs any estimates of savings it could provide.[Salt Lake Tribune, March 8, 2007]

One of Mr. Piatt's most blinding misstatements is this one: “In anti-voucher ads those questions are cast as troubling questions: ‘Setting few if any standards for private voucher schools. Like no accreditation…’ That’s false. In fact, school accreditation…[is]spelled out in both voucher bills.”

Boy, is that patently false. I've read House Bill 148 word-for-word more than a dozen times and I've broken it down segment-by-segment in a four-part series online, and I'd challenge Mr. Piatt to demonstrate how House Bill 148 requires private schools to be accredited. It's not there.

Mr. Burningham puts it much more politely:

HB 148 states that schools taking voucher students must “provide, upon request to any person, a statement indicating which, if any, organizations have accredited the private school.” This does not constitute a mandate for accreditation from any organization – merely that the schools disclose whether or not they have achieved accreditation. HB 174 makes no further mandates for accreditation on private schools.

According to the Utah Administrative Code Rule R277-410, the Utah State Board of Education is “not responsible for the accreditation of nonpublic schools, including private, parochial, or other independent schools.” The same rule mandates the accreditation of all public secondary schools, including charter schools, while public or charter middle, junior high, and elementary schools may seek accreditation if they wish.

Further, according to the Utah State Office of Education School Accreditation website: “In the State of Utah, by law all public schools, granting high school credit, are required to be accredited.” The State Board of Education says that “Private and parochial schools that issue high school credit and/or diplomas should be accredited” – again, not constituting a mandate.

Then Mr. Piatt gets to the question of standards and accountability in private schools, and he gets it blatantly wrong again. When the UTPS commercial says House Bill 148 includes no accountability for tax dollars, Mr. Piatt declares, "That’s false. In fact…accountability… [is]spelled out in both voucher bills. That includes requirements for annual student testing.”

House Bill 148 only requires that private schools give a "norm-referenced test" that compares their students' performance against students nationally. Nothing in the bill requires private schools to administer the same tests given in public schools, or to show how their students perform against students in Utah's public schools. That would be giving accountability to the public for public funding, and the voucher plan doesn't say that.

Or, as Mr. Burningham writes,

The test chosen by a private school may be any norm-referenced test in any curriculum. It may have absolutely no reference to the achievement required from public school students on, for instance, the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (U-PASS). U-PASS, enacted in 2000 by the Utah State Legislature to ensure the effectiveness of the tax dollars being used in public schools, is just one of many testing requirements of the 96 percent of Utah students who attend public schools. The results of U-PASS testing are widely available and reported to allow parents to see how their child’s school is doing with the core curriculum approved by the State Board and required of all public schools. On the other hand, schools accepting vouchers have no such requirement for a comprehensive core curriculum, let alone a test that definitively covers such a curriculum. There can be no basis for comparison between public and private schools to determine success if students are not held to the same standards.

Additionally, accountability goes beyond testing - while public school budgets are reported annually and in great detail, private schools accepting vouchers must only account for the voucher payments separately and contract with a certified public accountant to make a report to the State Board every four years.

Finally, Mr. Piatt flatly misleads his viewers about teacher credentials in private schools. The UTPS ad says there's no requirement for private school teachers to have a credential to teach, and Mr. Piatt says, "That’s false. In fact…teacher credentials are spelled out in both voucher bills.”

How could someone entrusted to report facts to viewers get this so wrong? Last week, the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy and Administration got it completely right, as I wrote on Saturday. They wrote,

Teachers must either hold a baccalaureate or higher degree OR have special skills, knowledge, or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in the subject(s) taught.

And I wrote,

That means there's no requirement in this law that teachers in private schools have a college degree. If I'm a private school administrator and I want to hire my cousin to teach math, even though he's a high-school dropout, I can say he has "special skills, knowledge or expertise" because he managed the inventory at a local construction company for a year. That took math skills, didn't it?

Again, Mr. Burningham said it less abrasively than me:

What subject matters those degrees are held in or what “special skills” constitute making a teacher qualified is left up to each individual school. No license or teaching credential is required – merely that the school makes the qualifications of the teachers it has chosen available for review by parents.

All of this begs some simple questions for me. Did Mr. Piatt know what he was reporting? I mean, did he read the bill himself, or did he have an intern read it for him? Or did he just accept the PCE told him as fact? Did he do his own fact-checking, calling any state agencies -- maybe even the State Board of Education -- to get their input before airing his story?

And, not knowing Mr. Piatt myself, it makes me wonder whether he has some personal stake in the outcome of the voucher referendum. An educated person really can't make all of these blunders by accident, can he? Is that possible?

Taken by itself, Mr. Piatt's report is one great mess, and it's clear than PCE is taking advantage of it to confuse voters. But then I recall that Governor Jon Huntsman appeared before television cameras last week, said hopeful things about the voucher plan, said he would vote for it, then advised Utah voters to do their own research into the issue, come to their own conclusions and vote their conscience. Within a couple of days, it seemed, PCE had produced a new commercial that included only the governor's remarks that were favorable to the voucher plan.

Taken together then, Mr. Piatt's report and the PCE ad featuring Governor Huntsman, it looks like there's a pattern in PCE's strategy: Get something into the public record, even if it's false, or even if it's only part of what we want, and then use the parts we like to create a better, stronger impression that favors the voucher plan.

Is Mr. Piatt a willing accomplice in this strategy? It's a possibility, since we know that the editorial board of his television station has taken a clear and public stand against vouchers. They published it here (, saying,

The KSL Editorial Board has thoughtfully considered the views presented by opponents and proponents of school vouchers, and has come to the conclusion that a broad taxpayer supported voucher system should not be implemented in Utah. Our opposition to vouchers boils down to a fundamental question: Is Utah's public school system broken and in such disarray that doing something as radical and unproven as directing precious tax dollars toward private schools, many of them parochial, the answer? We think not!

It is not a question of school choice since parents already have a variety of options in Utah. Any parent who so chooses can send a child to a private school, or a charter school, or a different public school! School choice is not the issue!
In KSL's view, that's where the focus of Utahns ought to be. Let's reject vouchers and work toward making changes that will benefit all Utah children for generations to come.

So Mr. Piatt's employers weren't behind his report.

Come to think of it, that leads to one more question: If the editors at KSL are plainly opposed to the plan, yet they have allowed Mr. Piatt's erroneous report to stand (and now to be used by PCE as pro-voucher campaign material), then are they, too, willing accomplices in the pro-voucher campaign? How difficult is it to say, "Our reporter produced a report that drew certain conclusions, and in retrospect, we understand that those conclusions weren't accurate. In the interest of public service, we want to amend that report and offer a better account"?

As it is, the editors at KSL have let their reporter's errors stand. In an email exchange with Bill Keshlear here (, when confronted with the various facts refuting his report, Mr. Piatt wrote simply,


I stand by my story.


And so far, KSL stands by its errors.


rmwarnick said...

Last night, I saw a TV ad by PCE using video from the KSL-Piatt "Truth Test." Basic argument-- see, KSL says we're the ones telling the truth. Never mind that KSL has editorialized against the private school voucher plan.

Rich's buddy said...

Piatt isn't a voucher hack. He simply made a mistake.

I bet even he would admit it to friends, in fact, he did.

Referendum One said...

To Rich's buddy,

I appreciate very much that Mr. Piatt told his friend that he made a mistake. I don't doubt what you say, and I appreciate that you said it to me.

But Mr. Piatt, whom I don't know, is a public figure and, moreover, a journalist, which means his job is to inform the public on matters in their interest. At the moment, there are only three items in the public record reflecting Mr. Piatt's journalism on the voucher issue. One is the KSL report, whose errors I described in some detail; the second is his published comment to Bill Keshlear, stating clearly and unequivocally that Mr. Piatt stands by his original report; and the third is the mail from Parents for Choice in Education, repeating in black-and-white what Mr. Piatt said on KSL, and using the graphics that Mr. Piatt used in his report.

We now have fewer than six days before we will go to the polls to make a decision, based on the best information provided to us, on the voucher matter. If Mr. Piatt made a mistake and was willing to express that to his friends, I hope in the interest of public awareness and professionalism that he would make that known, and specifically to correct the public record on this question.