Monday, October 15, 2007

Yes or No: Is the voucher plan affordable?

Yes or no, Is the voucher plan affordable to Utah? A lot of people are asking about the affordability of Referendum 1, the universal, statewide, public-funded voucher plan. The data that tells how much the program will cost and how much it's supposed to "save" is as clear as mud. It reminds me of something Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography: "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics." Like a lot of voters, I don't care for any of them. I prefer the 'yes' or the 'no.'

Emily at Utah Amicus writes here ( that the voucher plan, "if passed, is expected to cost Utah Taxpayers $429 million over the next thirteen years." At news like this, I would expect to see the members of the Utah Taxpayers Association taking up their cudgels against the plan and its sponsors, yet I've seen no such uprising.

The editors of the Daily Herald take issue with Emily's arithmetic. They declare here ( in the Sunday edition, "The true cost of vouchers over 13 years is $327 million, not $429 million as opponents claim." But the editors also say the costs are so little that "it's hardly worth quibbling over." Maybe a hundred million is "chump change" to the wheelers and dealers funding Parents for Choice in Education, but to regular citizens who will wind up paying for it through their taxes, I'd say it's definitely worth quibbling over -- maybe even worth studying hard.

But back at Utah Amicus, in the comments below Emily's post, Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute goes several steps further to announce the plan will realize "savings" of more than a billion dollars. If Mark Twain were reading Mr. Mero, I think the assertion of a "billion" dollars in savings is where he would stop.

By the way, if cost-saving is the primary goal of lawmakers, then Craig Perry of Salt Lake City has a proposal worth considering just as seriously at House Bill 148. He writes in Saturday's Trib here (, "I have something I'd like to propose to be on the ballot also this November: pay and benefit cuts for those who are supposed to be representing the people. I think it's only fair that there are budget cuts for the people we've entrusted to make sure that our children are getting the highest quality public education possible. We can give the money we save on their exorbitant salaries and socialized medicine benefits packages to the schools. They could certainly use it for the art and music programs that are currently being cut from their curricula."

Even if we apply the foolish "Oreo cookie" logic to Mr. Mero's "savings" of a billion dollars, we'd have to be feeding Oreo cookies to every child in Utah, including every child now enrolled in 138 private schools, to get close to that figure. To my knowledge, there's no reference point online to the documentation of Mr. Mero's arithmetic, so we're left to speculate that these savings fall into the category of "damned lies" or, worse, "statistics."

Or is THAT the secret analysis done by the Legislative Fiscal Office, that Sen. Curt Bramble didn't want Utah voters to see?

Apparently, one report from the legislature's Fiscal Analyst's Office was requested by Sen. Pat Jones and Rep. Kay McIff, who both oppose Referendum 1. They asked specific questions about voucher costs, they got the analysis of Referendum 1 showing the voucher plan would cost $327 million, and they released that information to the public.

But then Sen. Curt Bramble asked for a fiscal analysis, and suddenly the voucher plan would "save" $1.4 billion. How? Legislative Fiscal Analyst Jonathan Ball told Glen Warchol at the Trib here ( that

Bramble asked for the "cost of educating in public schools all who would qualify for a [voucher] over the next 13 years." In other words, the cost to educate all the potential voucher students, even ones moving in from out of state, if they chose not to leave the public system.

Since Referendum 1 ultimately gives vouchers even to parents whose children already attend private schools -- and who have never attended public schools at all -- are they included in Sen. Bramble's analysis? If so, is that a fair analysis? After all, students enrolled in private schools right now don't cost taxpayers a penny. But they'll cost plenty if the voucher plan is enacted and public dollars begin flowing to those schools.

But we don't know the answer, because Sen. Bramble first refused to give his taxpayer-funded fiscal analysis to the public. (Do you think the Utah Taxpayers Association will weigh in on behalf of Utah taxpayers to make sure everyone gets that taxpayer-funded information?)

The importance of giving the public an easily digestible bottom line was evident last week when opponents were denied access to the research supporting what has become known as the "Bramble Memo." The Fiscal Analyst Office denied the request, citing the state's Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA)

GRAMA, the office said, does not allow the public to see research provided to lawmakers - unless the legislator involved permits it. Jones and McIff gave the analyst's office permission to make the research public. Bramble initially would not give permission to release research behind his memo. But late Friday, after several interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune, Bramble directed the Fiscal Analyst's office to release the information.

Voucher opponent Alan Smith, an attorney who is a member of Utahns for Public Schools, accused Bramble of "political gamesmanship" with the Fiscal Analyst's Office, undermining the agency. "The office is supposed to have credibility - he's abused it for his own partisan ends," Smith said.

The timing of the Bramble memo, July 27, less than a month after the majority leader and other House and Senate voucher advocates formed a pro-voucher PIC, shows Bramble was using a state agency for political purposes, Smith said.

Bramble said he withheld permission to release the research because he felt the GRAMA process should be followed. "I don't know what the unintended consequences would be of waiving the standard for what is a public record."

If it's taxpayer-funded, doesn't that make it a public record? Or is it just funded by public dollars but intended for select individuals' personal or private use, like a school voucher?

Getting back to Oreo cookie logic, Gwendolyn Wilson of Sandy questions it in a letter to the Trib on Saturday here (, writing, "I want to relate a story about my daughter's elementary school. Several years ago, her school eliminated one of five kindergarten teachers due to lower enrollment. As a result, this school had four classes of 25 kids each instead of five classes of 20 kids each. When I asked the principal why this happened he said that he was forced to reduce the number of teachers because the enrollment had dropped. He said that he had no choice according to the district funding rules."

Veteran classroom teacher (33 years!) Anne Stringham of Holladay had a similar reaction to the Oreo cookie commercial. She writes in her own letter to the Trib here (, "I am a visual learner, and as such, I tend to zero in on material that uses that learning channel. So, naturally, when the very incorrect data of the pro-voucher commercial I saw with Richard and Linda Eyre was placed before my eyes, those eyes did see red."

No doubt this is a hotbed of discussion with pending weeks to be filled with diatribes from both sides of the debate. However, to purposely televise faulty information in hopes of making your case is unethical. One would think that prominent individuals, especially those in the public spotlight, would choose to place their names (faces in this case) behind accurate data.

A student does not represent $7,000 on the weighted pupil unit calculation. That amount is much lower. Nor does removing one child from a classroom lower that room's class size. The district looks at the number of students enrolled and then determines how many full-time equivalent staff to allocate depending on the current designated ratio of teacher to student."

So much for the argument that vouchers will lower public school class sizes. Maybe this is what happens when we reduce education to a stack of Oreo cookies.

I think Jeff Harmon of Layton has identified the right questions AND the right answers in his letter to the DesNews here (,5143,695218115,00.html):

I think the voucher issue comes down to three questions:
What is the problem that vouchers are supposed to address?
Will the Utah voucher legislations fix the problem?
Who will actually benefit from a Utah voucher system?

In my opinion, some well-meaning people have fallen for the statistical issues of per-pupil expenditure and class size without looking at the real determinant for school performance. Yes, Utah ranks very low in per-pupil expenditure and class size, but the state is ranked fourth or fifth in the nation for students who graduate and students who go on to college. Clearly, the Utah voucher legislation will not fix a problem that isn't there.

The most important question is "Who actually benefits from a voucher system?" And the answer is: Anyone who has a financial interest in private schools.

And that doesn't sit well with Dixie Allen of Vernal, who represents District 14 on the State Board of Education. She writes in the Trib last Friday here (, "If we truly wish to provide a quality education system for all students, can we trust that private industry and individual parents can and will provide the necessary funding to educate all students? Do parents trust that the private educational programs will accept their child, regardless of status, ability or special needs? There are many questions regarding funding, accountability and equality surrounding the voucher proposal. Do we trust it will be worth the tax dollars you provide?"

And which tax dollars are we talking about? Kenneth Bruner of Layton, writing to the Standard here (, has caught onto Referendum 1's secret(s):

Referendum 1 isn't about choice, it's about who pays. During a time when we are seeing staggering increases in property taxes and shortfalls in health department and other critical service funding that needs to come from scarce tax dollars, we can't afford to pay for a family's personal choice. If you've read House Bills 148 and 174, you may be surprised to learn that vouchers will be paid out of general state tax revenues in the General Fund. They will not be paid from monies already allocated to educate these children in public schools as suggested by voucher proponents.
This referendum is wrong on more levels than I could possibly describe in a mere 250 words. Would it bother you to know that nonresidents (legal and illegal) will be eligible for vouchers the day they move into Utah? How about providing vouchers to families who already have their children in private school (HB174 would provide immediate vouchers to a family of four with an income of $38,000)? A minimum $500 would be given to even the most affluent of families.

Emily, who wrote about the inaffordability of vouchers at the Amicus, caught it, too: "And yes, pro-voucher people, you are correct when you say that this money is not coming from the Education fund... it is coming from the General fund.. the very fund which pays for things like my husband's salary and our family's health insurance and other important things like road maintenance and prisons."

Col. John Smith, U.S. Army-Retired now living in Bountiful, gets it. "I'm just a blue-collar guy — a bricklayer and a contractor. I didn't even complete college," he writes here (,5143,695217832,00.html). "But I know what a shell game is, and I can sniff out a con artist. Some people are telling me we'll fund our private-schools voucher plan out of the sales tax. They say that doesn't count because we're not going to touch the public schools' income tax. How dense do they think we are? That's a shell game. Common-sense voters know it's all taxpayer money. It all comes out of the same pocket. Maybe it also helps explain why we do the poorest job in the United States of funding our public schools."

Adam Bushman, a senior business major at Brigham Young University, and his wife Rachel, both lifelong Utahns and living in Provo, understand how vouchers would affect their lives and the lives of their children. They write at the BYU website here (,

Referendum 1 claims to be the answer to the problem of “failing” public schools. The funny thing is, our schools won’t fail unless vouchers succeed. Referendum 1 gives scholarship money to parents who choose to save their children from those nasty “failing” public schools by putting them into private schools. Private schools and their teachers are not held to the same standards as public schools, and statistics show no significant difference in performance between publicly and privately educated children. Private schools are not proven to be of any better quality than the “failing” public schools.

But the real problem with Referendum 1 is that for every student that goes to private school, a public school loses funding. And every dollar that public schools lose is one dollar less they have to spend on insignificant extras such as teachers, computers, books, arts programs, and resources for ESL and disabled student populations. And then you’ve got a serious problem. After loss of funding to private schools, public schools really will become failing schools, and then we will face terrifying consequences.
Most of us, despite our grand dreams of wealth and glory, will make moderate incomes and have billions of kids, and private schools will be a luxury we can’t afford, vouchers or no vouchers. The average private school in Utah costs $8,000/year/kid, and the average family (two kids and the median income) only qualifies for a $2000 voucher per kid. You can kiss Disneyland goodbye, because if vouchers pass, you’re going to need every extra cent to pay for your kids to learn how to read.

But future millionaires need not fear, because even making $150,000+ you’ll get $500 per kid to pay for their schooling. So the people who can already afford private school get free money anyway, and the people who can’t afford it don’t get enough to put it within reach. Ridiculous.

I agree. It's ridiculous.

I began with a simple 'yes' or 'no' question: Is the voucher plan affordable to Utah?

A wise lady once taught me that 'yes' or 'no' questions are deceptively easy, not deceptively hard. The question is simple, and the answer can be simple too. If facts don't immediately let you say 'yes,' then it's likely that the answer is 'no.' I tried to reason my way to a clever middle ground, as if it matters more who's asking the question, or who's offering the facts that lead to the answer. But as I've aged, I've returned many times to her wise counsel and found things to be just as she explained.

This question is no different. Is this voucher plan affordable to Utah? If the answer isn't instantly 'yes,' then it must be 'no.'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just remember that the "utah taxpayers Association" isn't really more than a front for big business and rarely represents small groups of people like citizens!