Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Who is intimidating & who is informing?

Yesterday I mentioned the Trib article saying that the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce is still struggling to come to a decision whether or not to support the voucher referendum. It reported that pro-voucher special interests have taken matters into their own hands and begun circulating letters to businessmen across the region.

While it's never safe to predict what representatives of special interests will do when ethics clash with a potential profit motive, if I were a gambler I'd bet money that the Salt Lake Chamber will find that common ground pretty soon and come out for the voucher referendum. For one thing, time is running out. And what motivates businessmen is the POTENTIAL for profit. There's plenty of potential for profit when public funds are funneled into the private sector. And compromising one's ethics often stings less than a flu shot, because doing it can garner as many new friends in the business community as it costs you. So I'll stay tuned for that announcement.

By lunchtime yesterday, the Trib had found a copy of this letter and published it here ( Several things about it caught my attention. One is that these business leaders finally admitted that the goal of the voucher program isn't to improve public education, isn't to reduce class size, isn't to give public schools more funding -- the various lies that have been promoted for the past six months -- but instead, the goal is to give parents an incentive to move their children from public schools to private schools. The businessmen say it in black-and-white:

The new voucher law would create an incentive to move as many of these new students as possible into the private sector...

But that's not all. Mata Hari picked up on this yesterday, too, here ( but I'd like to repeat it: There's a real strong element of Big-Brother intimidation, or old-fashioned bullying, in the letter when it comes to special interests telling businessmen to inform their employees about this referendum, and what to say to their employees, and how to say it. When I scraped out the fluff from the letter, here is that element laid bare:

Dear Fellow Business Leader,

It would take a significant tax increases just to accommodate this [public school enrollment] growth, and that could hurt our citizens and our economy.
The new voucher law would create an incentive to move as many of these new students as possible into the private sector and relieve pressure on taxpayers and our public schools.
Because of misguided opposition, the new voucher law has been placed on the November 6 ballot and now voters must decide its fate. Unfortunately, no one is talking about the enrollment crisis we face and the important role vouchers will play in avoiding overcrowded classes and massive
tax increases.
We are asking you to tell your employees about this aspect of the debate and encourage them to carefully consider the economic
impact of their decision. We have drafted a letter you can use as a template to explain the issue to your employees.
Please take the time to go over the information and to add your own thoughts as you discuss this issue with your employees.
We also strongly encourage that you remind your employees to vote.

Did you get the message? It says, roughly, We want voters to adopt the voucher referendum. Here's a way to scare them into adopting it: Tell them taxes will increase if they don't. Tell your employees that they can stop their taxes from rising by voting for the referendum. In fact, we're sending you a letter to read to them, or to give to them, and you should add to it if you know of something more than will convince them to vote for the voucher plan. Whatever you do, make sure that you tell them that voting for the voucher plan is a good idea, then tell them to vote.

To me, that's not information, that's intimidation. What comes next, a signed note from the poll supervisor saying you voted, that you can turn in to your manager at work? Punishment for not voting? You lose a shift? Or you get moved to third shift?

Two things make this absurd to me. One is that, as I pointed out yesterday, Parents for Choice in Education did backflips to stop all sorts of public employees -- mainly ones that work for school districts -- from even talking about the referendum on public property; remember the nasty letter to administrators from their attorneys? The other is the panicky argument that if workers don't vote for vouchers, their taxes will go up.

That second argument is what led me to look at what happened in Milwaukee, the grandfather of voucher programs in the country. Voucher supporters used to use Milwaukee as the example all the time. The big newspaper in Milwaukee is the Journal-Sentinel, and it has some online archives you can access for free.

Guess what I found out: Taxes in Milwaukee DID go up. But they went up AFTER Milwaukee enacted a voucher program. And, in fact, they went up partly BECAUSE Milwaukee enacted a voucher program. Might they have gone up anyway? Sure, because as public services expand, and the costs of those services grow, public revenues have to be levied to pay for them.

But the businessmen of Salt Lake City -- at least these ones:

Fred Lampropoulous, CEO, Merit Medical
Keith Rattie, Chairman and CEO Questar Corporation
Patrick Byrne, CEO, Thomas E. Bingham, President, Utah Manufacturers Association
Howard M. Headlee, President, Utah Bankers Association
James V. Olsen, President, Utah Food Industry Association
L. Tasman Biesinger, Executive Vice President, Utah Home Builders Association
M. Royce VanTassell, Vice President, Utah Taxpayers Association
Chris Kyler, Utah Association of Realtors
Candace Daly, National Federation of Independent Business
Lee J. Peacock, Executive Director, Utah Petroleum Association
David A. Litvin, President, Utah Mining Association

are selling a very different equation: Enact a voucher plan, they say, and your taxes will not go up.

Last November, while the Wisconsin legislature was debating its annual budget, reporter Alan Borsuk of the Journal-Sentinel wrote an article here ( saying that public schools were closing and their enrollments were dropping, while the costs of public-funded private-voucher schools were growing. A total of 18,000 students received vouchers totaling more than $100 million, he wrote.

This is the part that stuck out like a sore thumb, given what the pro-voucher business group in Salt Lake City is telling employees:

Under the state formula for paying for school vouchers, Milwaukee residents pay more in property taxes for each student who uses a voucher than for each student who attends MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools]. Mayor Tom Barrett and others have argued strongly that what they call the "funding flaw" for the voucher program is unfairly burdening taxpayers.
In a letter last week to state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee), Milwaukee School Board President Joe Dannecker said that $7.6 million of the $16.5 million increase in the amount of property tax to be collected for schools for this school year is due to the voucher program and that each voucher student increased property tax collections by $447, while each MPS student increased collections by $91. The total property tax bill being levied by MPS increased this fall by 7.7%.

So 18 years after enacting a city-wide voucher plan in Milwaukee, taxpayers pay almost 500 percent more ($447 per student) from their property tax bill to pay for a private school voucher than they pay to send a student to public schools ($91 per student).

That article was important enough, but Mr. Borsuk published a new one, just today, that is even more important. It says that an organization that pushed to enact the Milwaukee voucher plan 20 years ago, and one of the well-known leaders in that effort, have now changed their minds, saying that "choice may not improve schools."

A study being released today suggests that school choice isn't a powerful tool for driving educational improvement in Milwaukee Public Schools. But more surprising than the conclusion is the organization issuing the study: the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that has supported school choice for almost two decades, when Milwaukee became the nation's premier center for trying the idea. The institute is funded in large part by the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, an advocate of school choice.

Mr. Borsuk's article is found here ( The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute sounds like the Sutherland Institute, if it's a conservative "think tank". I wonder if the Sutherland Institute also gets funding from the Bradley Foundation? Mr. Borsuk's article goes on:

Even some of the most ardent supporters of school choice in Milwaukee have seen that the purest version of the idea - in which there is little government oversight of schools, and parental decisions in a free market dictate which schools thrive - does not square with the reality of what happened in Milwaukee when something close to such a system existed. That reality can be summed up in two phrases: "bad schools" and "little change."

Bad schools: A Journal Sentinel investigative report in 2005 of the then-115 schools in the voucher program found that about 10% showed startling signs of weak operations. In short, many parents were choosing bad schools and sticking with them. Escalated government oversight of schools' business practices and a new requirement that all voucher schools be accredited by an outside organization have played roles in putting most of those schools out of business.

Little change: Milwaukee has been a national laboratory for school reform such as the voucher program, yet there is little evidence that it has yielded substantially improved academic results - at least so far. Test scores in MPS, especially for 10th-graders, have been generally flat for years. The record of the voucher schools is unclear, though results from a major study of the program are supposed to begin coming soon.

So here's what I understand: Voucher supporters in Milwaukee wanted a public-funded voucher program with little or no government oversight of voucher schools, leaving only "choice" to decide which schools are good and which aren't, and that's what they got. When that didn't work, the program was changed to allow city or state agencies to oversee the business practices in schools that were failing, and some of them closed because they couldn't meet good business standards. When there were still no improvements, the city required voucher schools to become accredited, and some more of them closed because of they couldn't meet accreditation standards. Still there was no improvement in student test scores.

Haven't we heard from the sponsors of House Bill 148 that vouchers in Utah would improve the quality of public education? That it would cause class sizes to go down? That it would leave more money in public schools? That choice would bring competition, and competition would force public schools to get better? That it wasn't necessary to ask private schools to be accountable or to be accredited, because parents would get to decide what was best for their children?

Doesn't this Milwaukee study, after 18 years of having such a program in place, put the lie to those propositions?

And here's a question: Do you know who Howard Fuller is? Gordon Jones does; Mr. Jones was the first Executive Director of the Utah Education Funding Project, whose name was changed to Parents for Choice in Education, and he continues to serve on PCE's board of directors. In explaining why he supports the voucher referendum, Mr. Jones mentioned Mr. Fuller here (, saying,

The appeal of school choice is driving leadership at the national level to the minority community. Leading voucher proponents have included Polly Williams, Floyd Flake and Bernice Gates, leaders in their minority communities, and now the irreplaceable Howard Fuller, with his Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity.

Mr. Fuller is "irreplaceable" as a leader in the voucher movement, Mr. Jones says. That's unfortunate, because the voucher movement will now have to replace him, according to Mr. Borsuk of the Journal-Sentinel:

Howard Fuller, the most prominent supporter of voucher and charter schools in Milwaukee, has changed his position toward agreeing that government oversight of voucher schools is needed. In a recent interview for a workshop of the national Education Writers Association, Fuller said empowering parents to make good choices, improving student performance and creating good schools were proving to be much harder achievements than many once thought.

Asked whether the voucher program was leading to improvements in the achievement of MPS students, as was once expected, Fuller said: "I'm one of those people who believes that we may have oversold that point. . . . I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn't been the deep, wholesale improvement in MPS that we would have thought."

Is this one way of saying that citizens who stood up against vouchers so long ago were right? That citizens who argued for smarter investment in Milwaukee's public schools, rather than funneling money into the private sector, were right? That those citizens who asked impertinent questions when the voucher plan was being debated were right? That citizens who questioned the arguments of the voucher proponents were right? That citizens who were skeptical of the nebulous data used by voucher advocates... were right, all along?

In fact, is this another way of saying that someone should have taken a deep breath and spent more time thinking this through before investing potentially billions of dollars -- and experimenting with an entire generation of schoolchildren's lives -- in a voucher plan?

It sounds, to me, that when special interests order businessmen to tell their employees what to think, and how to vote, that's intimidation. And when a "think tank" went looking for one result but found the opposite result, then published a study saying so, that's information. (It's even a surprising admission!)

In the interest of being informative rather than intimidating, here's a bit of happy information: The early voting period has begun today!