Friday, October 5, 2007

What does House Bill 148 say (Part 3)?

"Section 5" of House Bill 148 defines the nine criteria that will make a private school "eligible" for vouchers, if the law is enacted. More accurately, the language defines what makes a private school "eligible to enroll a [voucher] student," but it's obvious that any private school in the state is "eligible" to enroll a child whose parents pay for the tuition. So to describe the most accurate meaning of the language, we might say it defines what makes a private school eligible to receive public funding. And to be blunt, the eligibility requirements are pretty thin.

First, the private school would have to have a physical location in Utah where a student will attend classes and "have direct contact" with the school's teachers. At least the bill sponsors want there to be a real "school" with a real desk and chair, and a real live person at the front of the real classroom. I interpret from this that "online" schools couldn't receive the public-funded vouchers.

Second, the private school has to hire a real CPA to conduct "procedures specified in Subsection (2)" and report the results of these "procedures" to the state board of education. Essentially, it's an audit, but I'll save the explanation of Subsection (2) until we get there.

Third, the private school has to comply with "antidiscrimination" provisions of a certain federal law. I haven't read the law, but I wonder if this means that a private school will be expected to enroll every student who comes to be enrolled, the way public schools are. Hard to tell, but I have a feeling about it.

Fourth, the private school has to comply with local health and safety codes. But shouldn't we assume that any facility that serves the public has to comply with local health and safety codes? In fact, I'm surprised if that's not true. So why take the time and effort to write it into House Bill 148? Is it just filler?

Fifth, the private school has to "disclose to the parent of each prospective student, before the student is enrolled, the special education services that will be provided to the student, if any, including the cost of those services." I think this is another case of what ISN'T said being equal to, or greater than, what IS said. The private school ISN'T being required to provide the same special education services to students as public schools are required to provide; they're only required to inform parents of the services they do provide. If the student needs services that the private school doesn't provide, the student has to go somewhere else. To be honest, isn't this is passive way of weeding out certain kinds of students -- ones that don't cost a lot to a private school -- from other kinds of students? If the student is basically blocked from enrolling because this private school doesn't offer the services he or she needs, then how great was the value of the voucher to that student? House Bill 148 doesn't solve that student's concerns; it doesn't even pretend to try to.

The sixth requirement for eligibility concerns testing in the private school. House Bill 148 requires a private school to "assess the achievement of each student" but the means for assessment sound different from the accountability expected of public schools. The private school will have to give students "a norm-referenced test scored by an independent party" that compares its students' scores to the scores of other students nationally, or "an alternative assessment" if the student is disabled or has "limited English proficiency," (or if the student would be exempt from taking a "nationally norm-referenced achievement test" while enrolled in public schools). Are these the same as the expectations of public schools to give tests? Are they the same as this, or are they more stringent because of "No Child Left Behind"? If they're more stringent, does it mean that the private school is held to a lower standard -- or no standard at all -- and is exempt from "No Child Left Behind," even though it's receiving public funds to educate a student?

After "assessing" the student's achievement -- by whatever means the school chooses, but which House Bill 148 doesn't define -- the private school has to report the results to the student's parents, and make them available to others without identifying the student. Since the law doesn't define the methods of assessment, and the private school can choose whatever method it chooses, is it reasonable to say the school could choose a test that isn't as rigorous as ones given in public schools, and that suggests its students perform at a level higher or better than students in public schools? If so, is it fair? Is this a level playing field? Are our tax dollars being used to compare apples to apples?

The seventh requirement has to do with the people who teach in private schools. If I read it correctly, House Bill 148 only requires ONE of two things of the people hired (or contracted with, which is different) by a school to teach. A person EITHER has to have a college degree -- not specifically a degree in education, or a license to teach -- OR have "special skills, knowledge, or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in the subjects taught." If there's no education degree from an accredited university to prove a person's qualification, or a license proving that a person has satisfied the state's expectations for a person leading a classroom, then who will get to judge the "special skills, knowledge or expertise" that House Bill 148 says is sufficient to teach in a private school? Will the private school itself be the judge of those "special skills, knowledge or expertise"? Without any defined standards?

Earlier this week, the editors of the Daily Herald suggested that this proposal was a good idea because it would allow people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, George Washington or Jane Austen to teach in Utah's private schools, since, without college degrees, they couldn't teach in Utah's public schools. I thought -- and still think -- the argument is disingenuous, because how often will Bill Gates or people of his specific achievements and acumen ask to teach -- as their regular jobs -- in Utah's schools, public OR private? (I wrote more about that topic here [].)

And the eighth and ninth definitions for the "eligibility" of private schools to receive public funding is that they must "provide to parents the teaching credentials of the school's teacher; and provide, upon request to any person, a statement indicating which, if any, organizations have accredited the private school." House Bill 148 doesn't require "teachers" in a private school to have a college degree or a teaching license, but if they do, the school will have to provide that information to parents. And House Bill 148 doesn't require a private school to be accredited by any accrediting authority whatsoever, but if it is, the school has to inform parents of it. It is not just a rhetoric question to ask, Is that accountability?