Saturday, October 6, 2007

What does House Bill 148 say (Part 4)?

So if a private school wants to be eligible for public funding through vouchers, House Bill 148 requires that it hire a real CPA to do what takes a lot of space to define in the law, but what really sounds like basic business accounting.

For example, the CPA has to make sure that the vouchers "are accounted for separately and reconciled to student records," and he or she has to "determine that expenditure of scholarship funds have been made for education expenses." What else could vouchers be used for? And once the check is cashed by the private school, doesn't that money belong to the private school to spend as it chooses? How difficult is it for a private school to shift expenditures from one line to another, in order to satisfy this accounting requirement?

The funny thing is, once this CPA establishes this baseline report and delivers it to the State Board of Education, the private school only has to be audited in this way "every four years thereafter, except" if the board changes the delivery date for subsequent reports. I think that means that if the State Board of Education's composition changes, and a pro-voucher majority takes control, it might have the authority to change its own rules and delay indefinitely any subsequent accounting audits of private schools who receive vouchers.

The next section of House Bill 148 outlines which schools are NOT eligible to collect public dollars through vouchers. Look at how narrow this category is:

183 (3) The following are not eligible to enroll scholarship students:
184 (a) a school with an enrollment of fewer than 40 students;
185 (b) a school that operates in a residence; or
186 (c) a residential treatment facility licensed by the state.

So if the private school enrolls fewer than 40 children, if it's being operated in someone's house, or if it's a state hospital, it cannot collect public dollars through vouchers.

But if it enrolls 41 or more students and operates in a business space, even in a rental unit in a shopping center, it can collect as many publicly-funded vouchers as it can enroll students. And it can determine the "qualifications" of its own employees or "contractors" to teach its students, and it can choose whatever test it wants to administer, and all it has to do is hire a CPA every four years unless the State Board changes that rule. Is this accountability?

The next segment of House Bill 148 tells the State Board of Education that it will receive private schools' applications to receive vouchers by April 1 each year, then tells the board that it must approve those applications if the private school meets the criteria I've outlined. And once all of those applications have been approved, then the board must make a list of those approved private schools available to the public, so we can all see where to send our students. So far as I can tell, the State Board is only given the authority to change its rules to delay the timetable for a CPA to report its accounting reports. The board won't have the authority to turn down a private school unless it falls short of these narrow criteria. It makes me wonder why the bill sponsors even involved the State Board of Education at all.

"Section 6" of House Bill 148 orders the State Board of Education to award vouchers according to the funds appropriated by the Utah Legislature, then it orders the Utah Legislature to set aside funds every year to pay for enough vouchers to cover "all students projected to apply." If the state doesn't have enough money to pay for all of the voucher applications, then House Bill 148 says the vouchers will be awarded "on a random basis except that preference shall be given to students who received scholarships in the previous year." This means that a parent only has to worry about winning their voucher incentive once, because every year thereafter, their voucher incentive is likely to be renewed. It's so likely, that if the state runs short of voucher funds, it will even eliminate "new" vouchers for a year. In the worst case scenario, the state will divide up the available voucher dollars among all of the students who received vouchers the previous year.

But then, because the bill sponsors anticipate this sort of budget shortfall, House Bill 148 orders the State Board of Education to "request a supplemental appropriation from the Legislature to make full [voucher] payments..."

I wonder if the bill sponsors have ever considered granting the State Board of Education the authority to request supplemental appropriations for public schools, in order to fully fund the cost of a good public education for all the children in public schools? If not, why not? This bill language clearly suggests they have the power to do so.

"Section 6" also goes into great detail outlining how a voucher will be awarded based on parent(s') income(s), including the incomes of widows, step-parents or guardians, and it orders the State Board of Education to design the rules under which the income(s) will determine the value of the private school vouchers. It some cases, the language is pretty crazy. For example, if there's a question about which parent's income to count, the language specifies:

226 (E) if the parents are divorced and the [voucher] student resided with each parent an
227 equal amount of time, the income of the parent who provided more financial support during the
228 past 12 months;
229 (F) if the divorced parent with whom the [voucher] student resided for the greatest
230 amount of time or who provided the greatest financial support has remarried, the income of the
231 parent and stepparent; and
232 (G) if the [voucher] student resides with a guardian, the income of the guardian,
233 unless the guardian's income is exempt by board rule.

The income of the parent, step-parent or guardian is important enough to take up several paragraphs' worth of space in the law, but requiring a private school to hire licensed, credentialed teachers is completely unnecessary, according to House Bill 148.

There are even more "rules" ordering the State Board of Education to establish a "table" of vouchers, and then House Bill 148 spells out which categories of income/students will collect which level of voucher funding, from $3,000 per year down to $500 per year.

This may be where the "accountability" is built into House Bill 148. The bill sponsors make it clear that they don't want kindergarten students to receive more than 55 percent of the full-year voucher awarded to a student in grades 1 through 12. They don't want the State Board of Education to pay out these vouchers in more than four payments per year, nor any later than the first day of September, November, February and April of each year -- except unless a private school demands partial payment in order to hold a space for a student.

Does anyone else find these rules ludicrous? Is this what passes for accountability in the voucher plan? If this isn't insane enough, the law also says,

283 (9) Before [voucher] payments are made, the board shall cross-check enrollment lists
284 of [voucher] students, school districts, and youth in custody to ensure that [voucher]
285 payments are not erroneously made.

And then there's this: Who receives the voucher check in the mail?

286 (10) (a) [Voucher] payments shall be made by the board by individual warrant made
287 payable to the student's parent and mailed by the board to the private school. The parent shall
288 restrictively endorse the warrant to the private school for deposit into the account of the private
289 school.

The check will be made out to the parent's name, but it will be mailed to the private school, not the parent. The parent will then have to go to the school and sign the check over to the school. This much is absolutely clear: Whoever said the private school would not be the "direct" beneficiary of a public funds through this voucher plan was lying to Utah voters.

Which makes it easier to understand "Section 7" of the bill, which essentially tells school districts to lie to the State Department of Education about their true enrollment figures for the first five years after the voucher plan is enacted, if it is enacted. Basically, House Bill 148 pretends to guarantee that public schools lose no funding when they lose students (because public schools are funded now based on how many students are enrolled in them). Of course, this "mitigation" money is a mirage, because at the end of five years, public school funding will come all the way back to the per-pupil level it receives today -- meaning that it will only receive the same low level of funding it receives today, based on the number of students enrolled in it.

"Section 8" is redundant, as it orders the State Board to make rules "consistent" with the Utah Administrative Rulemaking Act. (Did anyone know that lawmakers had passed an act spelling out how rules would be made?)

And "Section 9" is almost comical. It orders the State Board to "require private schools to submit signed affidavits assuring the private school will comply with the requirements of this part." What requirements? That it should make sure to enroll more than 41 students each year and keep its storefront rent paid?

And if the private school doesn't sign the affadavit, then the State Board can cut off its publicly-funded vouchers. That's the full extent of the accountability I find in House Bill 148.

There's one more bit of "accountability": The State Board will be able to "investigate complaints and convene administrative hearings for an alleged violation" by the private school, and IF a violation is found by the board, then the board can cut off that school's publicly-funded vouchers.

BUT "Section 10" quickly and clearly establishes that "nothing... grants additional authority to any state agency or school district" to hold private schools accountable for the publicly-funded vouchers being delivered to them.

"Section 11" promises that the legislative auditor general will review and report on the voucher plan "after the conclusion of the 2013-14 school year." This means that even the least effective private schools -- without any of the same public accountability or oversight that lawmakers enjoy to govern public education -- will continue to receive publicly-funded vouchers for five years, so long as they sign the affadavit pledging to comply with the law's thin "requirements," until and unless the legislative auditor general disqualifies the plan or that specific private school at the end of that five-year period.

Finally, "Section 12" of House Bill 148 sets aside the first $100,000 installment of public funds to pay for private school vouchers.

This, in its entirety, is my best interpretation of House Bill 148, bit by bit.

And after interpreting it, piece by piece, I'm still left asking the same question: Where is the accountability for public funds? Is it in the affadavit promising compliance with the law's "requirements"? In the quadrennial accounting report by a CPA? Or in the review to be conducted by the legislative auditor general after five years of the plan's implementation and expenses? In the orders given to the State Board of Education to serve as a passkey for voucher applications? In the checks sent directly to private schools that must be endorsed by the parents of the voucher school's students?

Or is it nowhere at all? In which case, we're wasting a lot of time, and a lot of energy, and a lot of money on a plan that is wholly and solely intended to disrupt education in Utah.

If that IS the case -- as it appears more and more all the time -- then how do we hold accountable those lawmakers who purposefully collaborated with All Children Matter and its secret funders across the country, accepted their campaign contributions, filed their voucher plan for them, fought to keep the plan off the referendum ballot, then arm-twisted the lobbyists in Salt Lake City into organizing to pass this disruption on to Utah's schoolchildren?