Saturday, October 27, 2007

What does the CPPA report tell us?

First, I had nothing to do with the report that's just been released by the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Utah (,0,w), so any similarities you may find between their report and my personal analyses of House Bill 148 here (, here (, here ( and here ( are purely coincidental, as they say in the movies. Unless its authors took the time to read my posts on it, for which I'd be happy.

Now that that's out of the way, Hooray! that someone has finally made an objective, piece-by-piece report of what House Bill 148 says. This is what I've been waiting for. Why has no newspaper done this? Or television station? My only complaint about the CPPA report is that it's so brief. It reads and feels as if the authors have really gone out of their way to be noncommittal about the bill. I respect and applaud that goal, but in the pursuit of offending no side, the result is that the report feels thinner and paler than it could have been.

Nonetheless, it's the best we've got, and it's good. Writers Jennifer Robinson, Janice Houston and Sarah Wilhelm promise only "The Basics" in their title, and that's what they deliver. What did the Utah legislature do?

In 2007, the Utah Legislature passed the Parent Choice in Education Program, which, if implemented, will provide scholarships (vouchers) to children to attend private schools.

I'm glad the authors don't adopt the misleading term used in the bill, "scholarship." (Yet. But unfortunately it slips in later.) And who will get these vouchers?

Unlike voucher programs in other states that limit scholarships to only low-income students or students with disabilities, the Parent Choice program will provide scholarships to all Utah students who meet basic criteria.

So what did the CPPA choose to do?

The Center for Public Policy and Administration has completed an analysis of the Parent Choice in Education Program. This analysis provides a thorough examination of the Parent Choice program by addressing who is eligible, the standards for private schools, and the fiscal impact on the state and school districts.

Great start.

Then the authors deliver a brief history of the legislative, judicial and citizen-led actions that found House Bill 148 on the November 6 ballot, including the confusion about the second voucher bill, which is not a part of the voucher referendum but which will be affected by the referendum outcome.

The scholarship program was set to begin in the 2007-2008 school year; however, “The Utah Supreme Court ruled that if a majority of voters vote in favor of implementation of HB 148, then the Parents Choice in Education Program under HB 148 and HB 174 will be established. If a majority of voters vote against implementation of HB 148, then the Program will not be established” (Utah Legislative Research and General Council 2007).

If House Bill 148 were enacted, what would it do?

The Parent Choice in Education Program, if implemented, will provide annual scholarships to qualifying children to attend private schools in Utah. The scholarships range between $500 and $3,000 per student, depending upon family size and income.

And who is considered "qualifying"?

In order to qualify for the program, a student’s custodial parent or legal guardian must reside in Utah. The student must be between 5 and 19 years of age (except that a student who has not graduated from high school may qualify up to age 21).

Students must also meet at least one of the following criteria:
=Be born after September 1, 2001;
=Be enrolled as a full-time student in a Utah public school on January 1, 2007;
=Not be a Utah resident on January 1, 2007; or
=Be in a lower income family (student qualifies for reduced lunch)

These four criteria prohibit students currently enrolled in private schools from receiving the voucher scholarship, unless the student’s family is low income. Therefore, the students who will qualify for the scholarship are those just entering kindergarten, those who were enrolled in a Utah public school on January 1, 2007, students who lived outside of Utah on January 1, 2007, or students from low-income families who are now enrolled in private schools.

But it is also true, and I wish the authors had pointed out plainly, that because the program is being phased in over 13 years, by the end of that period it will cover children who aren't transferring from public schools to private schools, but also children who are enrolling in school for the first time, using public-funded vouchers in private schools.

The authors then include a chart showing the dollar amount of the voucher that would be given to a private school, even for the wealthiest families in Utah. Their chart demonstrates that this isn't a program designed to subsidize private school education for poor families, but rather to subsidize private school education for the wealthy. Its welfare for the wealthy, paid for from the state treasury!

Back to their narrative, they explain what House Bill 148 requires a parent to do if he or she wanted to collect a voucher:

To receive a scholarship a parent must apply for the scholarship from the Utah Board of Education by June 1 preceding the school year. By signing the application, parents acknowledge that:

=A private school may not provide the same level of services that are provided in a public school.

Which is a tacit admission, isn't it, that the program isn't really about "competition," because the standards to be met by public schools are -- as the bill acknowledges -- higher than any standards expected of private schools.

=The private school in which they have chosen to enroll their child has disclosed to them the teaching credentials of the school's teachers and the school's accreditation status.

It doesn't require that a school hire any teachers with professional credentials, or that the school earn any accreditation from any authority. It only requires the school to tell parents what, if any, credentials its teachers have, and what, if any, accreditation it may have collected.

=They will assume full financial responsibility for the education of their scholarship student if they accept this scholarship.

Which again acknowledges that the dollar amount of the voucher is likely not going to cover the cost of private school expenses, leaving the parent to make up any and all of the difference -- plus the cost of transportation.

=Acceptance of this scholarship has the same effect as a parental refusal to consent to services pursuant to Section 614(a)(1) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

And with this, the state washes its hands of any responsibility it has to guarantee equal protection to students, including students with special needs, or students with handicaps, under federal law. This part makes it clear that once a mother endorses the voucher check to the private school, that mother waives all federal rights guaranteed to her and her children, and the state won't offer any protections of its own.

This is a pretty powerful section, if you ask me. But the next section is just as powerful; it outlines the pale requirements for a private school to be eligible to receive the public-funded vouchers.

So what are these pale requirements?

First, the private schools must have a physical location within Utah where students attend classes and have direct contact with teachers.

So, anyone who opens a storefront "school" can qualify.

Second, private schools must comply with the antidiscrimination provisions laid out in the U.S. Code under which students may not be discriminated against because of race, sex, color, national origin, disability, religion, age or status as a parent.

So voucher-receiving schools cannot discriminate on the basis of race, religion or other factors, but there's never a guarantee that space will be available for a child who... (you fill in the blank on the basis of race, religion or other factors).

Third, private schools must annually assess each student using a norm-referenced test that compares students’ performance to national results.

Why not use a test that compares students' performance to state results -- the performance of all Utah students in every school, public and private? Is there a reason we can't do that? Or is there a fear of what those comparisons might reveal?

Fourth, schools must contract with an independent certified public accountant (CPA) who must submit a financial report at the time the school applies to accept scholarship students and once every four years after.

While public schools are subject to review every year, a private school that accepts public funds will only have to deliver an audit every four years. That means a private school can misuse public funds the first year it accepts them, if it chooses to, but the public won't know about it for another three years.

Fifth, there are also requirements for teachers at private schools. Teachers must pass a criminal background check. 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.

Did you notice that second "or"? I'll highlight it for readers:

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.

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?

Sixth, schools must have an enrollment of 40 students or more. They cannot operate in a private residence nor can residential treatment facilities participate in the program.

So if I want to open a private school in a storefront and begin collecting public funds through vouchers, I only have to enroll 40 children. If I have a large family -- lots of brothers and sisters and cousins, and they all have children -- then I can open a school serving only the children in my own extended family, and make a profit from public funding. That's precisely what the law will allow.

Lastly, schools that “encourage illegal conduct” are not eligible to participate in the voucher program.

That's a relief. Although nothing in House Bill 148 requires teachers in private schools to undergo criminal background checks, it's nice to know that the school itself can't encourage any illegal conduct.

And yet, as the authors point out:

Given the criteria above, not all private schools will be eligible to participate in the voucher program.

Because the criteria are so stringent? These criteria?

It is equally important to note that not all private schools will choose to participate in the voucher program.

CPPA points out that the state Board of Education will be responsible administering the voucher program, with a little funding to cover administrative costs.

Then CPPA addresses the fiscal impact of the program. Even after you move your stacks of Oreo cookies around, playing with "costs" versus "savings," the CPPA reaches a conclusion that a lot of other folks have reached, too:

By the 13th year of the program, when it is fully implemented, the costs to the state will exceed savings to the school districts by $43-59 million.

That's not $59 million of savings to the state, that's $59 million in COST to the state. And I thought vouchers were supposed to save taxpayers money?

The authors point out that there are voucher programs in other places, but that there's a big difference between them and House Bill 148:

The voucher programs in these states are aimed at specific populations of students, such as low-income students or students with disabilities.

...Utah’s voucher law... is the only state-wide voucher law that will provide scholarships to all students who meet the basic criteria outlined above.

So while other cities or states may have experimented with giving vouchers only to poor parents, the sponsors of House Bill 148 went whole-hog, drafting a plan that includes even the wealthiest of the wealthy, and making it statewide and universal -- an experiment that has never been attempted before on this scale, with these costs.

CPPA outlines the arguments for and against the voucher plan without indicating whether any argument has greater merit in shaping public policy, and I wish they had included that sort of evaluation. It would have been helpful in decision-making. But they do raise a point that I raised in one of the earliest notes I posted on this issue: What does the Constitution say, here ( They write,

Finally, there may be constitutional concerns with Utah’s voucher law.

According to the Utah Voter Information Pamphlet, available through the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, under the Parent Choice in Education Program, public funds will be used to provide scholarships for students who attend private schools, including private religious schools.

The use of public money for students attending private religious schools may conflict with federal or state constitutional provisions that prohibit the use of public money for religious purposes. In addition, other aspects of the program may conflict with equal protection provisions of the federal or state constitution or with state constitutional provisions relating to the State Board of Education’s authority or the scope of the public education program.

Because of the program’s unique characteristics and the lack of a directly applicable court ruling, it is unclear how a court would rule on any of these issues.

All in all, this was a good, fact-based, objective look at House Bill 148, and I'm grateful to the University's CPPA for doing what our regular media hasn't had the courage to do.

Do you think the regular media will report much about this study? Or have the Oreos had their desired effect...