Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Is this realistic for Utah families?

For today, I probably should rename my weblog "Accessibility First," because I pulled out an old link to a Trib article that included a map of private schools in Utah. It reminded me that there are only 138 private schools in the whole state, and the vast majority of them are located in clusters along I-15 from Ogden through Salt Lake City to Provo. (You can see the map again here http://www.sltrib.com//ci_5060104.)

The caption in the map explains where the rest of them are. St. George and Park City have four each; Brigham City, Escalante, Hurricane, Koosharem and Logan have only two each. And the rest of these cities, towns and communities have only one each: Castle Valley, Cedar City, Erda, Helper, Kanab, La Verkin, Moa, Manti, Monroe, Montezuma Creek, Monument Valley, Mount Pleasant, Oakley, Roosevelt, Tooele and Toquerville. If 34 private schools are scattered across the rest of Utah, that means 104 are congregated along that stretch of I-15 from Ogden in the north to Provo (well, technically, Spanish Fork) in the south.

That raises a question for me. If I'm one of the many parents who live well outside the developed part of the Wasatch Front, and I pay taxes that are used under House Bill 148 to pay for private school vouchers, how would I get the benefit of my tax dollars? Assume, for just a minute, that I qualified for even the maximum amount under the voucher plan, $3,000, and that I wanted to send my daughter to a private school. But then say I lived 60 or 80 or 100 miles from the nearest one. Would I get the same benefit from my tax dollars under the voucher plan as someone who lives in Salt Lake City?

I think that the simplest answer is, No. In order to get the benefit of my tax dollars, I'd have to sell my home in rural Utah -- in this housing market -- moved to one of the larger cities or towns, and then buy a home that I could afford with the proceeds from my old house. And then, even if I qualified for the maximum voucher amount, I'd still have to pay for transportation to and from the private school every day. How many of our parents in distant communities could afford to -- or would want to -- do all of that? I think that the answer to this question is simple, too: Most of those families that have wanted to leave their rural homes and move to the city have already done it. For the ones that haven't already, I don't understand how House Bill 148 helps them. It takes their tax dollars, gives them nothing in return, but transfers the money to a family in the developed parts of the Wasatch Front.

So, in essence, it really is wealth-redistribution. Except that in this case, it may be the wealthier citizens, living in cities and towns, who get the benefit of taxes paid by less-wealthy citizens living in rural areas. That's the opposite of Robin Hood's kind of wealth-redistribution.

And all of this assumes that every private school will accept vouchers, which isn't a safe assumption because it's already been reported that several won't. (Does anyone have a list of the private schools who have said they will or won't accept vouchers? I thought I'd seen one printed somewhere, or at least some were mentioned in a news article, but I can't find any such list now. If you have one, please let me know where to find it.)

And secondly, it assumes that even a maximum-amount voucher will be sufficient to cover the cost of private school tuition. Several bloggers have already written on this topic. Oldenburg at Third Avenue told us here (http://3rdave.blogspot.com/2007/10/utahns-say-no-to-vouchers.html) that tuition to Rowland Hall-St. Mark's is now $14,710 a year (and more for the senior year), and I suspect it doesn't cover transportation:

I went to a private school (Rowland Hall-St. Mark's) from 5-PreK to grade 12, and it was great for me and my ADD with the small class sizes. But RHSM's current tuition is $14,710 for grades 6-11 ($15,040 for 12th because of graduation expenses) and $12,450 for full day kindergarten to 5th grade. That to me seems unaffordable for those who would get the $3,000 voucher. Now maybe Rowland Hall is at high end, but it is also one of if not the best school in the state. And don't our children deserve the best.

I've asked the same thing, Oldenburg.

Bill Keshlear posted a note last week for single mother Megan Risbon, here (http://utdems.blogspot.com/2007/10/who-exactly-is-supposed-to-benefit-from.html):

According to the pro-voucher people at Sutherland Institute, the average cost of private school tuition in Utah is $4,250. That means my out-of-pocket expense for private school tuition would be $1,750. (Not to mention the other expenses of private schools, but more on that later) I don't know about you, but $1,750 is a lot of money! That would pay for half of my daughter’s health insurance for a year. (Another story for another time). Or even a car of my very own car. Or help me pay off some of my student loans.

None of this matters because after paying each month’s bills, I wouldn’t be able to pay the extra tuition anyway.

Voucher proponents paint these rosy, Never-never Land scenarios. They do not live in the world I live in. They never mention other fees associated with private schools: the registration fee, the activity fees, uniforms, and books. And on and on.

Oh, and let’s not forget about transportation. Most private schools don't have the capability to bus children to and from school. Please Mr. Voucher Man, how can I get my child to a private school across the county when I have to be at work at about the same time in the morning? Should I risk losing my job?

Luckily, there are several private schools in the Salt Lake City downtown area so it would not be much of a burden for my family. But what about those low-income families living miles from a private school or in rural Utah with no car or only one car between working parents? What about their so-called "choice."
Also, most low-income families are also working families. Both parents work outside the home. Families must come up with after-school child care regardless of whether their kids go to private or public schools. Unless children are supervised by a relative or close friend, child care costs money.
Voucher proponents say it's all about choice. Has anyone told them choices parents already exercise? My daughter attends a public school outside our neighborhood boundaries. It costs me $5.

Now, I cannot tell from his short note responding to Ms. Risbon's situation whether he was intentionally condescending to a single mother or if it just sounded a lot like it, but Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute himself wrote that sacrifice "is good welfare policy."

So you can read it for yourself, I'll copy here exactly what Mr. Mero wrote on October 4:

I would be pleased to sit down with her and talk this through. Of course, she will know her finances and, more importantly, her priorities better than anyone. One beautiful aspect of this new law is that it does require some sacrifice (sometimes very significant sacrifices) and that is good welfare policy...and that is what this bill is "supplemental income."

Most private schools in Utah also provide their own scholarships and, for very low-income households, Children First Utah offers half tuition scholarships to help out. Hundreds of families already make this sacrifice and make it work for them without a voucher. The extra supplemental income from HB 148 helps even further. There is hope, but the author is correct...it is not easy. And that is a shame.

Best, PTM

I don't think it's a stretch to interpret Mr. Mero's theme to say that if wealthy Utah parents can already afford to send their children to private school, it's unfortunate that they are forced to pay for it themselves. Helping the wealthy preserve a little of their wealth is an admirable outcome of the voucher plan. But if the poorer parents who may want to send their children to a private school have to cut out other family priorities to do so, that's fortunate for them, because sacrifice is good welfare policy. Are we supposed to agree that poor parents don't deserve the same quality of life as the wealthy? And if they don't deserve the same quality of life, why is that?

Also, Mr. Mero makes a point that I'd not ever heard anyone make before: that the vouchers given to poorer parents are "supplemental income." Does this mean that parents taking the vouchers will have to pay taxes on them?

And speaking of Mr. Mero and the Sutherland Institute's report on the average cost of tuition in Utah's private schools, here's an excerpt from the press release (http://www.sutherlandinstitute.org/news/news_details.asp?c=2&id=282) that announced that "research":

Independent research conducted by the non-profit Sutherland Institute shows the average tuition among the majority of voucher-eligible private schools in Utah is $4,520. And nearly 64 percent of these private schools are within the range of affordability for low-income families, having tuition below $4,500.

“Affordability is a subjective term,” said Sutherland Institute President, Paul T. Mero.
Of the 88 voucher-eligible schools contacted, 64 responded. The responding schools reported annual tuition charges from $1,600 to $52,200. Only six private schools are clearly unaffordable for low-income families the new voucher law is primarily intended to serve. Those six were omitted from Sutherland’s results.

Several points of Mr. Mero's press release bear a second look. The first is that his Sutherland Institute produced "independent research." As Mata Hari has already noted here (http://againstutahvouchers.blogspot.com/2007/10/going-after-parents.html),

I am sure that with all the flacking that the Sutherland Institute has been doing on the pro voucher side they certainly are registered as a Political Issues Committee (PIC).
Hasn't Sutherland made "disbursements" (i.e. spent money) to try and influence the outcome of Referendum 1? Isn't Paul Mero unabashedly pro-voucher? Haven't all of Sutherland's so-called "research" papers and news releases made private school vouchers sound better than sliced bread? Then, surely they must be registered as a PIC! Alas, no. No sign of the Sutherland Institute in the list of PICs.

Another is that Mr. Mero identifies the number of "voucher-eligible" private schools as 88. That's 50 less than the total number of private schools in the state, according to the Trib. Should we assume that all of the "voucher-eligible schools" would accept vouchers? If so, that's only 88 schools to cover the entire state, which reinforces my first point about access to private schools.

But the fact that bears most attention in Mr. Mero's study this one: "The responding schools reported annual tuition charges from $1,600 to $52,200. Only six private schools are clearly unaffordable for low-income families the new voucher law is primarily intended to serve. Those six were omitted from Sutherland’s results."

If the study is independent, and intended to be scientific and objectives in order to give the most accurate information to parents and/or voters, why did Mr. Mero and Sutherland exclude the schools with the highest tuition prices from their math? Or, as Bob Aagard put it here (http://bobaagard.blogspot.com/2007/09/sutherlands-new-lies-on-vouchers.html),

You gather data. then you eliminate the 10% of your data that hurts your desired result?

I couldn't have said it better.

At the end of all of this pondering, here are the conclusions I draw. If I've misinterpreted, I'm happy to be corrected.

Some parents can already afford to send their children to private schools, even ones that cost $52,200 per year per student. Other parents cannot.

If passed, Referendum 1 would make some public-funded private school vouchers available to some parents, in amounts up to $3,000 per year per student. But not all parents would qualify to receive a public-funded private school voucher.

There are only 138 private schools in all of Utah, and only 88 of them are "voucher-eligible," according to the Sutherland Institute. It is possible that not all of the 88 "voucher-eligible" schools would accept vouchers or voucher students.

Even if a "voucher-eligible" school accepts vouchers and some voucher students, it is possible that these school won't accept all voucher students who apply.

Parents who live great distances from the few "voucher-eligible" schools that would accept vouchers and voucher students will pay taxes to support public-funded private school vouchers but will not have the benefit of these vouchers because no school exists within a reasonable distance of their homes.

Parents who live great distances from the few "voucher-eligible" schools that might accept their children, particularly, would have to move to a larger city or town to take advantage of the public-funded private school voucher.

According to the Sutherland Institute and its director, Mr. Mero, the voucher plan is "good welfare policy" because it requires poor parents to make greater sacrifices than wealthy parents make.

And while I haven't seen this reported anywhere else, the Sutherland Institute and its director, Mr. Mero, consider vouchers to be "supplemental income," and if it is truly supplemental income, it may be subject to state and federal taxes.

So much for accessibility.


andbrooke said...

I can't find a list of private schools who have committed to accepting vouchers. I did find a list of schools who would accept the special needs scholarships- perhaps that list is indicative?


Oldenburg said...

Thanks for linking to my typo-ridden post.

I think your point about all those Utahns who don't live anywhere near a private school is an even better one than the private schools are unaffordable at the $3,000 best-case-scenario point I was trying to make.

Referendum One said...

Thanks, Andbrooke. I'll look at that list to see if I can draw any sensible conclusions from it.

And thanks, too, Oldenburg. I always appreciate your perspectives, regardless of any typos.