Thursday, October 11, 2007

Where are taxpayers' true facts?

You know, maybe I shouldn't be amazed to hear and read the pure hogwash that the Utah Taxpayers Association distributes. After all, we all know people who believe what they believe, without regard for true facts, real figures and objective data. Since deciding to write about this topic several weeks ago, I have begged for authorities on school vouchers and House Bill 148 to give me true facts, real figures and objective data. I've still seen none from the sponsors of Referendum 1, and the best that the UTA has to offer is more of the same stale cookie dough. Their October newsletter doesn't pass the smell test.

They write

Whenever vouchers are debated, opponents trot out a litany of misleading, inaccurate and outright false statements designed to scare people away from parental choice. The current debate over Referendum 1 is no different. To make sure you have the facts, here is a candid assessment of common false claims voucher opponents make.

Okay, this sounds like a great start. With an introduction like that, I'm hooked and looking forward to nothing but the facts -- weighed, measured and marked for sale. But what I get is what I've already read from the Parents for Choice in Education's website.

UTA says that publicly-funded vouchers won't "drain funds from Utah schools." A bay mare has more sense than that. If Utah has only so many public dollars to spend, and it chooses to spend some of those dollars on vouchers, then it has to cut the number of dollars it spends on something else. Are lawmakers going to cut the number of dollars they spend on law enforcement? Emergency services? Roads? Bridges? Medicaid? If the answer is no, then they're going to have to take money from public schools, like it or not, sooner or later. And if public school enrollment has dropped, then they'll say they're being better stewards of the public treasury for "trimming the fat" from wasteful public schools.

Then UTA writes that when students leave public schools, the level of funding to those schools remains the same:

When a student (or a lot of students) leaves, state law requires that the same amount of money be spread among fewer students. Vouchers work the same way. Instead of paying $7,500 per student, the state would educate those students who switch to private schools at a maximum cost of $3,000 per student. The savings ($7,500 minus $3,000) is used to educate the remaining students and increases per student spending.

I wish my household budget worked that way: The more I spent on things I've never had to pay for, the more money I'd have left to spend on the things I'm always used my money for. Does that make sense to anyone?

Here are two true facts, back to back: Today, Utah taxpayers invest in Utah's public schools, and the children who attend private schools cost Utah taxpayers nothing. If Referendum 1 is adopted, Utah taxpayers will continue to invest, eventually at a lower level, in Utah's public schools, and the children who attend private schools will cost Utah taxpayers several thousands of dollars per year.

And here's a third true fact to go with the first two: Children who already attend private schools and cost Utah taxpayers nothing today WILL begin to cost Utah taxpayers several thousands of dollars a year, as the voucher program is "phased in."

If any of these three true facts is NOT true, I would like for UTA or anyone else to show me how it isn't true. And I would happily post whatever they send me that demonstrates that point.

As for the question about students leaving the the money staying the same, that claim may persuade some people, but some other people know that schools -- all public school in Utah -- are funded according to their student enrollments. How can we be sure of that? Ask yourself this: Do you know of a single school with 500 students enrolled in it that gets the same amount of funding as a school that has 1,500 students enrolled in it? If you don't, do you understand why they are funded at different levels? It's because their student enrollment is different. Fewer students equals fewer dollars. It's common sense and simple math. All this talk about "Oreo cookies" is just that: sweet feed.

You know what increases per-student spending in Utah? A vote of the legislature, when the legislature votes to increase per-student spending. A voucher can't vote to increase per-student spending. People who believe that using vouchers will increase per-student spending will believe a lot of things, and many of those things will be false.

UTA writes,

Opponents say private school vouchers are a parallel system. Everyone else calls it competition.

People understand what competition is. Put two schools, evenly matched, giving no advantage to either, side by side in a match to test academic prowess, or athletic prowess, or school spirit, or any other thing that can be measured by such a test.

But vouchers don't do that. Vouchers use public funds -- funds that otherwise would be spent on public services -- to give parents an incentive to move their children to private schools. OR, ultimately, vouchers use public funds to pay for the private school tuition of children who are already attending private schools today. Did you know House Bill 148 did that? It says so in the bill.

If we give public dollars to one school and hold it accountable to earn accreditation by a regional or national agency, but we give public dollars to another school without requiring it to have any accreditation at all, are we using public dollars to foster competition?

If we give public dollars to one school and hold it accountable for ensuring that all of its instructors have college degrees and are licensed to teach there, but we give public dollars to another school while allowing it to hire people without any college degrees, and without any licenses or other credentials, are we using public dollars to foster competition?

And if we give public dollars to one school and hold it accountable for meeting state and federal standards for curriculum and testing, but we give public dollars to another school without holding it accountable for any standards whatsoever, at any level, for curriculum or testing, are we using public dollars to foster competition?

The answer to all three of these questions is the same: No. When we take public dollars away from public services and give them to private enterprise through a voucher, we harm all of our people in order to reward a few of our people. And for what does House Bill 148 propose to reward them? For moving their children from public schools to private schools.

Then UTA falls back on some of the oldest anti-education rhetoric ever used. After several Utah Republicans have written in the past couple of weeks that they oppose vouchers because they represent a new "entitlement" or subsidy, UTA writes,

Public education itself is a subsidy. The fundamental premise behind public education is to require wealthy taxpayers to subsidize the education of all other taxpayers. Vouchers are a smaller subsidy than the existing public education subsidy ($3,000 maximum voucher, instead of $7,500 for a public school student). This conservative estimate includes facility construction and interest payments, which voucher opponents do not include.

That's patently false, and any regular history textbook shows it. In fact, the fundamental premise behind public education is to allow ALL taxpayers to invest in the economic health and future well-being of their whole community -- and state, and nation -- by providing an education system that is open and available to all of its citizens' children, not merely the children of those who could afford to hire tutors. That's the engine, begun at the turn of the last century, that drove economic and social and political and educational progress for the entire nation and made America the greatest nation in the world through the twentieth century.

Yet, UTA suggests that vouchers would not be a "subsidy" for private industry. I don't disagree at all that we as taxpayers pay for a host of subsidies that provide for a common good -- they give our poorest and least-capable citizens a kind of safety net. And if we didn't do that, would we really be upholding our mission of faith? But to say that vouchers are NOT a subsidy is silly. Any time we make public dollars available for services provided by the private sector, taxpayers are subsidizing the cost of -- of what? -- of having that service provided by employees in the public sector, who are subject to public accountability.

When asked if voucher schools would be allowed to "teach radical ideologies or extremist religions," UTA's answer is laughable. They write,

Not a single witch, terrorist, racist or polygamist school has opened. As the classic Wendy’s ad said, “Where’s the beef?”

The beef is self-evident: What you don't prevent from happening, you allow to happen. It's why some parents don't let some teenagers to have unsupervised sleepovers with others. Accidents don't happen until they happen. Extremist schools don't open until they get the necessary building permits and open their doors for business. And when they do, all they have to do is demonstrate fiscally sound management, and they can become "voucher-eligible." To ignore those facts is to play the ostrich.

And that's another true fact: The only accountability that a voucher school has to the State Board of Education is to demonstrate fiscal soundness through a simple audit. But to hear UTA explain it, that audit is equal to all of the rigor and examination that public schools are accountable to undergo every day, every year, because the public demands it. UTA writes,

Utah’s voucher law requires that private schools who accept a voucher must pass exacting audit requirements before they can receive a single dollar in voucher funds, and must continue to pass the same audit requirements.

Audits are not equal to standardized tests, which are what hold public schools accountable for their public funds.

And UTA sidesteps the question of which students voucher schools must enroll, and which students they can exclude.

"Nearly all private schools have open enrollment policies," UTA writes. Sure they do. And they are still able to turn away an applicant from their doors. What about special needs children? "Currently, 40 private schools already participate in the Carson Smith program," which pays voucher schools to enroll special needs children. That's 40 schools out of 138 in Utah. Do you know where is the one nearest to you?

1 comment:

andbrooke said...

Another thing that chaps my hide about this voucher program: the same legislators who won't fund class size reduction money find the money to fund vouchers.

They are the ones governing the school system. The fact that they are now willing to turn over school improvement to the doubtful outcome of competition points the finger at their own failure, not the schools'.