Thursday, November 29, 2007

Where is Patrick Byrne going next?

During the past three weeks, three things have been true. One is that I have lost the sense of amazement or surprise that I used to feel when I would read Patrick Byrne's comments in the newspaper, or his guest commentaries. Someone else, after taking a few days to think about it, might have apologized for the sort of comments he made about voters on Election Night. Far from apologizing, Mr. Byrne makes matters worse each time he publishes something new, and it's not surprising anymore. It's unfortunate that he is the way he is, but that apparently can't be changed. All we can do is to be aware of him ourselves, and to make others aware of him so they're not caught off-guard when he comes to their city or state.

The second true thing is that I've appreciated very much the many notes that readers have left here and in my email. The complimentary ones have far outnumbered the other sort, though even the other sort have shown that people cared so much about the matter to read even my notes about it. I didn't really intend for my notes to grow like they did, but I confess I got carried away with (or addicted to?) this issue once I started looking at it. As I've written before, I learned a lot from writers who had been studying the issue far longer than I have, so I pass credit on to them.

The third thing is that I've enjoyed spending time away from my computer. It's a good thing the holiday season is here because they give me great opportunities to break this addiction. Before it's completely broken, though, I want to add tonight's note.

Since the election, I have corresponded with Pat Rusk, who was one of the spokespeople for Utahns for Public Schools. I mentioned her here very early in my notes, and I read her comments in newspaper articles throughout this year, but I developed a better appreciation for her when I saw and listened to her in person in one of the debates with Richard Eyre. What struck me was that she said, at the start, that she wasn't a debater -- she was a teacher participating in a debate. For me, she came across that evening as sincere and knowledgeable, not "slick."

So, I was humbled to receive warm regards from Mrs. Rusk after Election Night. And I was gratified when she asked if I would read a guest commentary she has written, and if I would publish it if I agreed with it. I did read it, I do agree with it, and I'm happy to post it here:

By Pat Rusk

On Election Day earlier this month, Patrick Byrne, the CEO of, and an ardent supporter of private school vouchers, claimed Utah’s vouchers referendum was an IQ test for Utahns – a test they presumably failed when they rejected the plan by a 24-point margin that Tuesday.

What a tremendous insult to Utahns. We don’t need our IQs assessed by a millionaire businessmen with more of an interest in right-wing politics than in the future of our communities and schools.

When pro-voucher forces brought their voucher plan to Utah – which ranks dead last nationally in per-pupil spending and has the largest class sizes in the country – we knew they were looking not for education solutions, but rather just to push a narrow political ideology.

You see, many Utah legislators have long made public schools far too low a priority, as evidenced by such abysmal funding levels. Utah schools have done remarkably well in spite of their funding challenges, but the bottom line is that the flawed voucher plan put before Utahns this year did not address any real challenges in the state. Instead, it just promised to spend much needed resources elsewhere: in unaccountable, inaccessible private voucher schools.

And, contrary to what we’ve been hearing from voucher proponents, they just cannot provide any credible research showing that students in private schools do better than their counterparts in public schools. In fact, a 2006 U.S. Department of Education study of Washington, D.C.’s voucher program and a 2001 U.S. General Accounting Office study of Cleveland and Milwaukee’s voucher schools found no significant differences between academic achievement of private school and public school students. Proponents also suggest vouchers benefit poor and urban students but a report released this October from the Center on Education Policy found these students generally do no better in voucher schools than in public schools.

Instead of an unproven vouchers program that would just divert much needed resources away from public schools to unaccountable private schools, what we really need in Utah and across the country is to work together to provide education solutions for all students. We should be investing our effort and money to reduce class size, provide textbooks and supplies, and attract strong, qualified teachers to the profession.

Utah voters reiterated their support for public schools on November 6th when they so clearly rejected the flawed vouchers plan.

So, this begs the question: if pro-voucher interests can’t force vouchers in Utah, which was widely rumored to be a testing ground for such a plan, where can they force them?

The day after suffering such a dramatic defeat, two weeks ago, Byrne announced plans to take his vouchers campaigns to other states, with the first stop in South Carolina.

South Carolinians beware: Byrne is coming for you and your public schools next. I can only hope South Carolinians too “fail” Byrne’s vouchers test.

Mrs. Rusk, thank you again for your work (and for reading!).

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Who won, and who lost?

Only blind ideologues assert "mandates" and clear "messages from the 'lectorate" when elections yield victories of 50 percent plus a fraction. But in the case of Referendum 1, in which voters acted almost two-to-one to defeat it, it is almost understatement to say, well, that there are winners and there are losers.

And it seems fairly obvious how the major players and themes shake out.

WINNER: First in the column has to be Utah parents and children. Sixty-two percent of voters leave little room to be wishy-washy about this. They supported their public school system. They rejected the very idea of vouchers. This wasn't a vote about nuances, this was flat-out rejection of policies that take public money away from public needs. Bombarded with messages telling them that they needed more choices, parents -- represented and informed throughout the campaign by an active, engaged Utah PTA -- voted their response: They have sufficient choices; what they want is sufficient investment in their public schools. (Thanks for the reminder, Cheryl.)

WINNER: Utahns for Public Schools. I've never heard of a coalition like it before, and I wonder if it surprised itself with its effectiveness. If so, once the surprise wears off, it can claim some healthy momentum moving into next year's legislative session. And its spokespeople and debaters, from Lisa Johnson to Pat Rusk to Vik Arnold to Patrick Shea (who stayed cool as a cucumber, and personable, when dismantling Patrick Byrne's claims last Friday night) and others, always were well-equipped with facts and common sense arguments that stuck with viewers and listeners. When believability is key, it helps not to appear or sound salesman-y, or self-absorbed, or arrogant, or condescending or just plain mean. But I'll get to those guys in a bit.

WINNER: The Utah Education Association. Like it or not -- or, admit it or not -- Utah's teachers were right on this issue from its beginning, and Utah voters agreed with them. If this principle is unclear, I would invite readers to analyze the data here ( You'll notice that Referendum 1 was defeated in every single county. (That includes Utah County and Washington County.) Teachers made Utah history with their petition drives, and their partnership with Utah voters made some American history on Tuesday night. In addition, UEA tapped a nationwide network of teachers who gave small donations individually or through their own associations to match the unknown funding coming from Mr. Byrne and ACM's partners.

WINNER: Kim Burningham. He's a state board chairman with class, and his work this year just burnishes that fact. Remember that he stood up to the Attorney General's office last spring and took a beating for it, from a lot of different quarters. He was right to do it; he knew that well before 62 percent of Utahns proved it.

WINNER: Jeanetta Williams, leader of the Salt Lake NAACP, who doggedly demanded accountability from Mr. Byrne for his ill-advised thoughts on "burning" high school dropouts, and who weathered his equally ill-advised attacks on her and the NAACP.

WINNER: Luz Robles from La Raza, who spoke up when PCE and others used Hispanics in Utah as props for their voucher plan.

WINNER: Utahns. If you have astroturf legislation and diseased ideology looking for someplace to inject and infect, Utahns have a clear message for you: Not here.

WINNER: Utah's economy. I would say that an infusion of $8.4 million didn't hurt, except that Parents for Choice in Education spent a good bit of its cash in Arizona and New Mexico. Whatever the total economic impact, it contributed to Utah's treasury, which is good: I understand there are 150,000 more students coming to Utah in the next few years, so the additional revenue will be helpful to Utah's public schools.

WINNER: Lawmakers who stood and spoke out against the voucher plan from the beginning. Kory Holdaway and Sheryl Allen come to mind, but there were many others too. It hurts to be right and lose by a single vote, but it helps to be proven right by 121,393 votes (the present difference between those tallied for and against, with a handful of ballots left to certify). I suspect they all slept soundly on Election Night.

WINNER: Bloggers. Original research that connected the dots between pro-voucher money and motives was published online, and consistently, well before it ever (IF it ever) made it to the general media coverage. Only one journalist regularly scored and reported developments that still haven't seen the light of day in other papers, and that's Paul Rolly. But from Bob Aagard to Mata Hari to Jeremy Manning to Oldenburg, and Brooke Anderson, and Marshall at Wasatch Watcher -- and from the Amicus to the Sidetrack and several places between -- blogs and bloggers dug into this issue and did a real public service. (I'd like to think I contributed, too.)

WINNER: UTPS volunteers. Personal story: Wherever I've been, whoever I've talked with, I've heard the same comments, that UTPS volunteers were organized, organized, organized, with phone calls and neighborhood visits, from start to finish. They were hard to miss, to anyone who was watching. Not to minimize Election Day's importance, but those months of organized house-to-house work made Election Day just a matter of voter turnout.

WINNER: Finally, Utah's rural families. I want to recognize their place separately because voucher supporters never took seriously the questions from rural families about access to private schools, and the so-called benefits of vouchers to them and their children. Our rural families are part of us, too. Now, with vouchers off the agenda, lawmakers will have to address school funding directly. And the more attention given to needs in public schools, the more rural families will benefit in next year's budget.

Now, the other side of Election Night.

LOSER: Patrick Byrne. He lost the $3 million he spent -- likely to grow to $4 million in the final tally -- to prop up diseased legislation that was imported from Michigan's All Children Matter. He worsened his already-poisonous reputation by making awful statements about high school dropouts (they should be "burned"), about Utah voters (they "failed the state IQ test," he said), about Utah parents (they "don't care enough about their children," he said) and about the people debating him (he called them "bigots"). Showing contempt for his fellow Utahns on live television on Election Night illustrated why people say what they say about him. His performance didn't do any favors for the Milton Friedman Foundation, where he still sits on the board.

LOSER: Parents for Choice in Education, and its national mentor and sponsor, All Children Matter of Michigan. ACM was exposed as the godfather of the voucher plan, and its network of ideologues and propagandists were found to be its midwives. As for PCE, the organization existed for only one reason. Now that the reason has been roundly dismissed by Utah voters, what is its purpose? And if it has no purpose, will it continue to exist? And if it continues to exist, doesn't that disprove Milton Friedman's vaunted theories about the free market? And speaking of Friedman and his free market...

LOSER: Paul Mero and his Sutherland Institute. After his missteps this year, it's good that Mr. Mero doesn't trust the free market for his own employment. So long as the Kool-aid drinking folks in those unidentified foundations continue to send his institute its stipends, he's protected, regardless of his performance or his judgment -- or his slick, revisionist history-writing.

LOSER: Religion-baiting. We still don't know who aired those "Book of Mormon" radio ads supporting the referendum, but Mr. Mero's Sutherland Institute pro-voucher rewrite of Utah history was poor taste, plain and simple.

LOSER: Richard Eyre. He leveraged his salesmanship and his folksy parenting "schtick" in those silly Oreo cookie commercials. In 30-second bits, it was cute -- the first hundred times. But it was in the debates where we got to see a real condescending streak and some disturbing snake-oil salesmanship. I don't doubt that he's "for the parents." It's "parents" that have provided him and his family a healthy income for a generation. But I still wonder whether ambition to expand his "Joy Schools" gave him an extra reason to support the voucher plan.

LOSER: Richard Piatt. KSL's "truth" judge made errors in his report on voucher commercials; Kim Burningham and others spelled them out in detail. His errors lent his "truth test" report to exploitation by PCE. But rather than retract his report, correct his errors before Election Day and move on, he tried to save face and instead layered band-aids on the original report. Hindsight is 20/20, but this isn't just Monday-morning quarterbacking; there was enough time and opportunity to correct those errors while it counted. It doesn't anymore.

LOSER: Rick Koerber. Exposed as a moneyed minor-leaguer buying his way into the major leagues of his ideologue idols, Mr. Koerber's pronouncements only resonated with acolytes in his "Free Capitalist Project" and no one else.

LOSER: Jeff Isbell of Illinois. Mr. Isbell foolishly accepted the fool's errand offered by PCE; he foolishly reported it online; then foolishly challenged the Utah blog community. Sadly, he probably didn't learn any of the experience's obvious lessons, and he may well be on his way back to Illinois already. I wonder how he spent Election Day.

LOSER: The Provo Daily Herald. According to election results, a clear majority of the Herald's readers opposed Referendum 1, after so many barrels of ink had been used to convince them to vote otherwise.

LOSER: Unscrupulous lawmakers. Ones who orchestrated a legislative double-play to ward off the referendum challenge last spring. Ones who extorted the business-lobbyist corps to organize support for the voucher plan. Ones who threatened to hold next year's health care legislation hostage if others didn't kowtow to vouchers. And ones who made ominous calls to the University of Utah's Center for Public Policy and Administration, presumably to delay release of its objective analysis of the referendum.

LOSER: Legal intimidation. Remember that PCE's lawyers sent threatening letters to superintendents and principals, presumably to "chill" conversation and communication about the voucher referendum on school campuses? And remember that the Lieutenant Governor summoned PTA leaders to his office to talk about their communications in Utah communities?

LOSER: Mark Towner. Hacking the UTPS email system and sending pro-voucher spam to voucher opponents? Then lying about it? Then defending the tactic when caught and exposed? Towner's Spyglass may be well-read but its lens is fogged.

LOSER: Finally, Governor Jon Huntsman. By playing both sides of the fence, then playing dumb when PCE aired his hand-tailored press conference remarks, the governor has lost credibility with both sides of the voucher debate AND with Utah voters. After all, according to his own declaration, he voted with the losing side of this issue. The real winners in the Huntsman family this week are his children, who attend fine public schools.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

And what did the people say?

The people said, No.

With only a handful of precincts still out, 62.19 percent of Utah voters said they don't want a voucher program. If that margin holds through the counting of those last few precincts, it will eclipse all of the polls that had been released by newspapers, radio, televisions and anyone else since the referendum was certified by the Lieutenant Governor at the end of April.

The Trib's headline this morning calls it a "crushing defeat." I think they're being gracious. Especially to Patrick Byrne, who orchestrated much of the late funding behind Parents for Choice in Education himself, and who appeared throughout the night on television to prove many of the worst things that are said of him, accusing fellow Utahns of failing a "statewide IQ test" and charging that Utah parents "don't care enough about their kids." This, from a person who reminded a debate audience last Friday night that he holds a doctorate in philosophy from Stanford University.

Even in his grudging acknowledgement that Utahns dismissed his pet project, he held out hope that other populations in another small state -- South Carolina, he suggested -- would approve of his plan.

The Trib's coverage is here (

Voters decisively rejected the will of the Utah Legislature and governor Tuesday, defeating what would have been the nation's most comprehensive education voucher program in a referendum blowout.

"Tonight, with the eyes of the nation upon us, Utah has rejected this flawed voucher law," said state School Board Chairman Kim Burningham. "We believe this sends a clear message. It sends a message that Utahns believe in, and support, public schools."

More than 60 percent of voters were rejecting vouchers, with about 95 percent of the precincts reporting, according to unofficial results. The referendum failed in every county, including the conservative bastion of Utah County.

Voucher supporter chief executive Patrick Byrne - who bankrolled the voucher effort - called the referendum a "statewide IQ test" that Utahns failed.

"They don't care enough about their kids. They care an awful lot about this system, this bureaucracy, but they don't care enough about their kids to think outside the box," Byrne said.

PCE co-founder Doug Holmes continued looking for others to blame.

Doug Holmes, a key voucher advocate and contributor, said, "We started hugely in the hole and it's always been the case. The unions have done this in four different states, where they take the strategy of confusion to the people."

But Holmes said, "You don't run away from something because the odds are stacked against you."

PCE spokesman Richard Eyre, whose appropriation of Oreo cookies for television ads did little for the Nabisco brand on Election Night, used the same language to KCPW's Julie Rose here (, saying,

But pro-voucher spokesman Richard Eyre thinks voters were more confused than they were opposed to vouchers. And Senate President John Valentine still believes Utahns would support vouchers with the right information.

I have a feeling that 62 percent of Utahns weren't confused. It may well be that 62 percent of Utah voters happened to believe as the Utah Education Association believes, on this issue, without any confusion at all. After all, voters said from the beginning of the process that they weren't interested in the idea. The more they learned, the less they liked it, as the Trib noted.

The tidal wave of cash changed few minds, however. As far back as January - before the Legislature approved the voucher program - a Tribune poll showed voters opposing vouchers 57 percent to 33 percent.

I think a wise man once said, You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.

Take Mr. Byrne's insistence that his life's work is helping poor and disadvantaged children:

Voucher supporters countered with more than $4 million, nearly three-quarters of that from Byrne and his family. Byrne says vouchers are the only way America's "broken" public education system can stay competitive with other industrialized nations.

"What's got to happen and it might take Utah five to 10 years to understand," Byrne said, "they are at the bottom of the heap [educationally] and the heap is at the bottom of the international heap."

He shrugged off the fortune he poured into the referendum, saying he leads a fairly modest life as far as CEOs go. "The fortune that I'm making is all going toward educating lower income and especially African-American and Hispanic kids," Byrne said. "So this is not a terribly big deal to me."

Given his comments about the intelligence of Utah voters and uncaring Utah parents throughout the evening -- and his earlier remarks that high school dropouts should be "burned" -- I doubt that his altruism to poor and disadvantaged youths guarantees his nomination for sainthood soon. Just as I doubt that Governor Jon Huntsman will do the nominating.

Both sides, at one point, embraced the governor, who Byrne blasted Tuesday for his lukewarm backing.

"When he asked for my support [for governor] he told me he is going to be the voucher governor. Not only was it his No. 1 priority, it was what he was going to be all about," Byrne said. "He did, I think, a very tepid job, and then when the polls came out on the referendum, he was pretty much missing in action."

But Mr. Byrne holds out hope that his voucher dreams, declared dead-on-arrival by Utah voters last night, will find a home among some unsuspecting voters in the Deep South.

Byrne said the referendum defeat may have killed vouchers in Utah, but "There are other freedom oriented groups in other states - African-Americans in South Carolina are interested in it."

God help them.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Who mourns Referendum 1 (early)?

Halloween was last week, but I was reminded yesterday of the story of Frankenstein's monster. The monster was cobbled together from the parts of criminal corpses. It brought havoc and mayhem wherever it went. And when it was gone, no one in those communities mourned its absence.

This weekend, several newspapers offered their opinions. They sounded a lot like the opinions of those towns and villages who were threatened by Frankenstein's monster. Referendum 1? Not here, they said. Not this one, not now.

So who is (a day early) mourning the banishment of this monster? Only the editors of papers outside Utah, who were never threatened by a monster cobbled together from dead theories and diseased ideas. Only editors who, like Dr. Frankenstein himself, think it's a good idea to experiment with someone else's life and community and state.

Just across the southern border in Arizona, the editors of the Republic sound almost sad that they may not get to see the experiment play out in a neighbor's backyard. They write here (,

For years, the booming guns of the education wars over vouchers sounded in the distant East - in Cleveland; in Milwaukee. Last spring, the war came to the West. After 10 years of haggling over school vouchers, the Utah Legislature finally (by a razor-thin 38-37 vote in its House of Representatives) passed a measure that seemed to answer the greatest concern of those who opposed school choice: That it would drain traditional public schools of funding.

It appears unlikely that anyone will discover whether Utah's Parent Choice in Education Program - the nation's first universally available voucher program - would accomplish that feat, however. A successful petition drive placed the measure on the Utah ballot. According to polls, 61 percent of Utahns oppose the voucher plan, which will go before voters as Referendum 1 on Tuesday.
So if the vote goes as expected, the first real Western battle of the voucher wars will be won by advocates of the status quo.

Might the next skirmish be in Arizona? Advocates like attorney Clint Bolick, who believes Arizona's constitution does not prohibit parents from using their tax dollars to make choices about where to send their children to school, suspects this state might be next.

If the wars do come here, the Utah experience may prove illustrative. But it does not bode well for the advocates of change.

But articles in two New York City newspapers express the same conclusions today. Can you imagine this? That two newspapers in New York City, as far east as you can get, and as far from Utah as a body can be, are focused on what happens in Utah tomorrow?

I think this illustrates a point I made a long time ago, that the voucher proposal was never a Utah idea. It was an idea laid, incubated and hatched somewhere else, then imported and painted to look like it was a Utah idea.

Reporter Elizabeth Green of the New York Sun (which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, isn't it?) apparently got in touch with Patrick Byrne before writing her report here ( He explained who she should blame if Referendum 1 is defeated, and he told her he hopes that "the gods" will direct the will of Utah voters:

Tomorrow's vote on a Utah ballot referendum is shaping up as the next test in the campaign for school vouchers.

Voters will determine whether Utah becomes the first state in the nation to enact a universal school voucher program, letting any parent in the state use a voucher to pay for private school. Limited voucher programs are already in place in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and the District of Columbia, and voucher advocates hope that a victory in Utah could give the policy initiative new momentum.

Fueled by more than $8 million in campaign spending, one and a half times what was spent in the last governor's race in Utah, public discussion on what is known as Referendum One is vigorous. Several people said it is impossible to set foot in the state without noticing the bright signs in yards and windows begging citizens to vote yes or no, or being bombarded by television and radio ads filling the airwaves.

Even the Utah Jazz basketball game Saturday night was the scene for a showdown, as voucher supporters sandwiched between yellow "Vote For 1" signs received reactions that a leading advocate of vouchers, Patrick Byrne, said ranged from cheers to spitting on his shoes.

Mr. Byrne, the CEO of the Salt Lake City-based company, has poured more than $4 million of his personal fortune into supporting the voucher push, matching more than $3 million in anti-voucher spending by the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association.

Mr. Byrne said the fight is attracting so much attention because it could be a prelude to a cascade of similar programs across the country. "Why is the NEA here? Because they understand the national implications," he said. "They understand that this is the ice-breaking, and if it gets in and it succeeds, it would have a demonstration effect."
The latest polls suggest a yes vote is unlikely, with a 20-point spread between opposition to the measure, 56%, and support, 36%. Only 8% of voters told the Salt Lake Tribune they were undecided. Arguing his cause is still alive, Mr. Byrne, who holds a philosophy Ph.D. from Stanford, where he met his mentor, the late voucher supporter Milton Friedman, quoted Beowulf: "Fate often saves the undoomed warrior if his courage concurs."

"In other words," he said, "it may all look hopeless, but if you don't throw in the towel and you keep fighting, once in while the gods come in and do you a favor. I am hoping for a favor from the gods."

If only Mr. Byrne had been sending up prayers for the Jazz defense.

Following Mr. Byrne's lead, the Wall Street Journal itself weighs in today. It gives Richard Piatt at KSL a pat on the back for helping the voucher campaign with his faulty "truth test," but it goes ahead and assigns blame for Referendum 1's loss to "teachers [who] are very good at instructing [children] in how to run a political campaign."

I don't subscribe to the Wall Street Journal but I have a friend who does, and he sent me the story, which is here online (for subscribers) (

Utah's children may not excel in math or English, but their teachers are very good at instructing them in how to run a political campaign. As 2007 achievement test data show another disappointing year for the state's children, the teachers union is running a multi-million-dollar campaign to insulate itself from competition.
Still, the unions are banking that fear of the unknown will trump demonstrated incompetence. The opponents have raised a bundle to disseminate their predictions of doom, including more than $3 million from status quo headquarters, the National Education Association. They're stoking that fear with antivoucher TV ads that aren't winning high marks for honesty. Salt Lake's KSL-TV, an NBC affiliate that has editorialized against vouchers, nonetheless felt compelled to label as "false" the central claims in two recent attack ads against vouchers.

One ad featured the "Utah teacher of the year" claiming that vouchers "take resources away from public schools." In fact, the law provides only up to $3,000 per child toward private school tuition, depending on family income, and the voucher money comes from the state's general fund, not the education budget. The average voucher will cost $2,000, but the state now spends $7,500 per student. The public schools get to pocket the difference, $5,500, without an obligation to provide any services. So the more parents choose vouchers, the higher per-student spending will rise in the public schools.

Another attack ad claimed that private schools would have "no accountability," when in fact they are required under the law to report to parents how their children in voucher-supported schools do each year on nationwide achievement tests. Market-based competition will force exactly the kind of accountability that the unions fear in public schools.

Judging from recent polls, the scare campaign is winning. Still, supporters of school choice say that the voucher law could still survive, thanks to expected low turnout among the general population and higher-than-normal turnout among Utah Latinos, who make up roughly 12% of the population. Nonprofit Hispanics for School Choice reports an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort of personal visits and phone calls, and increased attention on Spanish-language radio, and at community events and church services.

Allowing the landmark voucher law to go forward would be a victory for students of all races, with more choices for parents and more opportunities for students. Halloween is over; Utahns should ignore the horror stories from unions trying to protect themselves, no matter the consequences for kids.

Why not build a Frankenstein's monster and turn it loose in the Big Apple? Then the New York Sun and the Wall Street Journal wouldn't have as far to travel in order to report on it.

Back at home, the Ogden Standard reminded Utahns this morning of its own opinion, and I'll give its editors the last word today, found here (

Citizens' State Referendum Number 1
a Vote: "Against"
Our opinion is simply that the law passed earlier this year by a one-vote margin in the Legislature is, among other things, too sweeping, too costly when it comes to the expenditure of taxpayer money and violates the Utah Constitution. This attempt to create a voucher program requires not only a tune-up, but a complete overhaul to make it worthy of voter support.

If you didn't vote already, don't forget to vote tomorrow.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

What do other papers recommend?

While it isn't unanimous -- the Provo Daily Record takes a different point of view -- a number of newspapers appear to be speaking with one voice on Referendum 1. Consider these:

Before issuing its final word yesterday, the Trib offered this preview on September 8 (

...[F]or us, the defining question in the voucher debate is simply this: Should taxpayer dollars go to private schools, many of which are religion-based?

Our answer is an emphatic no.

Nonetheless, we believe there is great value in a serious, focused, forthright public discussion of this seminal question.

There is hardly a more pressing issue in Utah than education, and rightly so. Vibrant public schools are where our young people learn many of the skills that will help them become informed, productive citizens able to support themselves and their families, pay taxes and otherwise contribute to the well-being of our communities, our state and the nation.

It is a shame that the Utah Legislature, especially its majority leadership, has lavished so much time and attention promoting what is by far the most comprehensive private school voucher law in the nation, based on the ultraconservative ideal of privatizing most government functions, including education.

This ideological crusade has gone on for years in Utah, without majority public support, while public schools have suffered from a chronic lack of funding that is unrivaled in this country. Our public schools should offer full-day kindergarten for all children, remedial help for students who are struggling, early-grade reading programs and smaller class sizes for the youngest children. Most parents would agree. Minority children and those from low-income households are especially at risk in Utah, but vouchers offer little for them. Most of their parents can't afford and don't want to transfer, and transport, their children to the relatively few private schools, located almost exclusively along the Wasatch Front.

A vast majority of parents want public schools to meet their children's needs. And that takes a united effort of legislators, educators and the community. The voucher issue has been a distraction from that effort, a distraction that Utah's children can ill afford.

Few will escape the voucher debate - the messages coming from both sides will be loud and insistent. All the more reason to pay attention, so that our votes are cast with a clear understanding of the issue. This is a watershed moment for Utah education, for the voting public finally has an opportunity to pass judgment on the wisdom of spending precious tax dollars on private schools for the few.

Maybe afterward, the legislators who represent us on Capitol Hill will finally give their undivided attention to the collaborative task of improving the public school system that is the key to Utah's future.

The Logan Herald Journal gave its final verdict early on September 30 here (

If parents want to send their kids to private school, they should carry the entire cost of the bill. To us, that’s what the arguments for and against the Parent Choice in Education Act — better known as vouchers — comes down to. In November, Utah voters will decide whether parents who choose to send their kids somewhere other than public schools should be allowed to receive tax money for scholarships for private school.

Public schools are vital to our society, and their impact isn’t found just in the kids who attend them. Parents sending their children to a private schools may think the public school system doesn’t offer them any benefits, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Every day, everyone in society interacts with people educated in the public schools. We all benefit from the system, even if we think it’s not the best option for our children.

While personal choice — the argument most often heard from voucher supporters — is important, people won’t lose that choice if vouchers aren’t available. Anyone can send their children to a private school of their choosing — they just have to foot the cost.

Utah has one of the highest, if not the highest, percentage of public school enrollment numbers in the country. It also is regularly near the bottom of per-pupil funding. Shouldn’t the focus be on providing the best possible education to the vast majority of students who will be attending public schools?

Private schools are a luxury. Much like many other things in our society such as Lexus cars, marble floors and lavish vacations, they aren’t an entitlement. People aren’t getting tax stipends because their choice is to drive a Cadillac instead of using public transit, so why should they get benefits to go to a school which they likely would deem superior to public schools?

The arguments for and against vouchers are confusing, and there appears to be a lot of misinformation going around the state from both sides. For us, however, it comes down to supporting what we already know to be a good system: public schools.

On October 16, the Trib weighed in again, building its case here (

The failure of Liberty Academy, a state-chartered and publicly funded school, has been blamed on the inexperience of its founders and directors, mismanagement and a lack of oversight and accountability. The experience of the Salem charter school should serve as a cautionary tale for those who see publicly funded vouchers going to private schools as an answer to Utah's education problems.

House Bill 148, which creates the voucher system that will go before voters Nov. 6, gives the state very little control over how private schools receiving tax money would be operated. That lack of oversight could lead to the same sorts of problems that have plagued Liberty Academy, to the detriment of parents and students - and to the taxpayers who are paying some part of their tuition to attend a private school.

In the heated debate over state Referendum 1, relatively little has been said about schools that may spring up to take advantage of tax-funded vouchers. That is because such talk is mostly speculation. Nevertheless, let's speculate for just a moment. It's almost certain that if the voucher law is approved, some people will want to create new private schools - some to make money and some to control the learning environment for their own children and the children of people who share their educational views.

We've already seen that happen with public charter schools, such as Liberty Academy, founded by people with little or no experience in education who are eager to create alternatives to traditional public schools. Even under the watchful eye of the state, since charter schools come under the Utah education umbrella, there have been financial and academic problems that the state is now trying to correct.

Aside from requiring criminal background checks on teachers and a yearly academic test of their students, the private schools that would get public money through vouchers would be free to do as they please, as long as they don't break laws. And they would be free to use taxpayers' money to do it.

That lack of accountability in private schools could put students and parents at risk as it has with some charter schools. It's a gamble that some parents might be willing to take, but they shouldn't be able to do it with public money.

The Daily Utah Chronicle wrote on October 24 here (,

The Parent Choice in Education Act, also known as H.B. 148, has the potential to further disrupt our state's already deteriorating public education system while widening the gap between high- and low-income families.
To begin, vouchers will not increase the money public schools have. Vouchers will take away a portion, whether it be small or large, of an already insufficient amount allotted to public schools per student enrolled. As one of the worst states in the nation at funding public schools, our public education system needs to do better. There is no way around that fact. It is disturbing that, in a state with a budgetary surplus, legislators would rather implement a system that takes money from public schools than deal with our flailing system by funding it adequately.

Next, there is the issue that the maximum amount allotted in a voucher doesn't come close to the tuition amount for most private schools. The system is by no means going to help members of low-income families because having to pay the thousands of dollars a voucher wouldn't cover is, for many families, impossible. Students in high-income families will likely benefit from the vouchers -- most are already in private schools and can consider a voucher as a $500-off coupon.

This discrepancy in who the vouchers will and will not work for seems as though it will leave schools populated with low-income families bursting at the seams, and schools with high-income families possibly in a better state then they were before. It has the potential to divide our classes further than they already are.

Last, admittance to a private school is by no means an assurance of a higher quality of education. Even the bill itself states that parents will have to accept that "a private school may not provide the same level of services that are provided in a public school."

It is a shame that the education of those who are supposed to lead our country in the future is of such little value that Utah legislators are willing to evade actually fixing the problem with increased funding and put in its place a voucher system that will prove to be more destructive than the system currently in place.

And this weekend, alongside the Trib, the Davis Daily Clipper gave its answer, which is reprinted here (

What voters should really consider are the following:

The tactics used by the pro-voucher forces have been suspect, if not down-right ugly, from the start.

Out-of-state money was used to fund the campaigns of candidates for the legislature without candidates making their stance clear to the voters. Even when we asked some directly, they would not admit it. We take campaigns with hidden agendas very seriously.

Some of the pro-voucher candidates seemed to lack any real substance other than favoring vouchers.

Even with all the high pressure tactics to get pro-voucher people into office, it took severe arm twisting to get vouchers to squeak by in the legislature.

Then pro-voucher forces sought to block Novembers vote by insisting that an "amendment" to the voucher bill could stand on it's own even if people voted down the original voucher law.

When it became evident that a vote couldn't be stopped, pro-voucher forces then tried to count the results on a district-by-district basis. This "electoral college" approach meant vouchers could conceivably pass even if voted down by the majority.

Sanity was saved by the Utah Supreme Court when it ended the mess by ordering a binding, up-and-down vote for Nov. 6, with no funny vote counting.

Aside from the highhanded efforts to subvert the public, a real problem with vouchers is that they are simply the old story of the camel getting its nose in the tent. While vouchers proposals are modest, there is a real risk that demands will soon grow to eat up all the Oreos.

A push to raise the voucher amounts is likely because the present voucher plan doesn't offer enough for poor families to benefit, and it provides only incidental relief for the rest. We suspect the low amounts were planned to ease opposition, but with intent to raise them later.

The whole Oreos thing also seems like an obvious bribe: "Let our children go, and we'll leave money behind." They've always been free to go and leave all the money behind.

Vouchers also seem to be aimed at fixing what isn't broken. With Utah schools doing generally well, vouchers seem a better idea for inner city schools elsewhere.

Somethings not right with this issue, And with the type of questionable behavior some pro-vouchers folks have already shown, it's highly unlikely they'll change their stripes if vouchers pass.

While we don't want to shut the door forever, all this baggage surrounding this issue leads us to conclude it's time to hold off: Someday maybe -- not here, not now.

And let's not forget KSL-TV/Radio, which issued its Piatt-proof word here (

With only a few exceptions, like the Provo Daily Herald and the DesNews (whose editors say couldn't reach consensus), it looks like the media sings from the same hymnal on this issue.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

What does the Tribune recommend?

They tell us here (, but I'll save you the time:

The Republican legislative leadership would have you believe that the voucher law on Tuesday's ballot is a solution to the problems plaguing education in Utah. It is not. Rather, it is a product of right-wing ideologues far from Utah who would like nothing better than to take education out of the hands of the taxpaying Americans who pay for it and turn it over to private interests.

These adherents to the philosophy of the late economist Milton Friedman have tried for years not just to undermine public schools, but eventually to eliminate them. In Utah, they have found an array of acolytes willing to ignore the will of the people and strong-arm enough of their colleagues to get the nation's first universal voucher program written into law - by a single vote.

But the Legislature's privatizers - led by House Speaker Greg Curtis, House Majority Leader Dave Clark, Senate President John Valentine and Senate Majority Leader Curtis Bramble - underestimated Utahns' desire to control how their tax money is spent, and their commitment to public schools.

Referendum 1 was forced onto Tuesday's ballot by a groundswell of opposition to vouchers by a populace unwilling to compromise their neighborhood schools by allowing tax revenue to be siphoned off to pay private school tuition.

Beyond the radical political and philosophical goals of the voucherites, there are other sound reasons for pounding a stake through the heart of this perennial push on Capitol Hill: the potential of vouchers to rob public schools of funding, and the questionable constitutionality of sending public funds to religion-based private schools.

The Utah and U.S. constitutions rightly forbid using public money to fund instruction in religious doctrine. That is why implementing the law would surely trigger lawsuits that would put taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars in legal bills. Regardless the outcome in court, it can be said with certainty today that the voucher law is an offense to the spirit of separating church from state.

The voucher law would not only create a system of private schools that are not accountable to taxpayers, but deal a devastating blow to public schools. In the 1980s and '90s, when Utah was suffering chronic recession and state revenues were tight, members of the Utah Legislature told underpaid educators in overcrowded, underfunded classrooms, "There's only so much money."

State revenue had to meet all the state's obligations, including public education. The same is true today, and can be applied to the impact of spending finite revenues on vouchers. Whether that money were to come directly from the state's public education fund, or from the general fund, it's all the same pot. Reduce the pot by hundreds of millions of dollars, as vouchers eventually would, and the remainder would not be enough to maintain public schools, let alone improve them. This erosion would not await the end of the voucher law's five-year provision to hold public schools harmless. Nor is there anything to keep the Legislature from further squeezing public schools.

The point is, Utah, with its high birth rate, simply does not have the money to support two separate systems - public and private. As it is, lawmakers have not adequately funded public schools, in bad times or good. Class sizes remain the largest, and per-pupil spending the nation's lowest, while teachers still are woefully underpaid.

Moving down the featured items on the bill of goods being sold to voters by voucher proponents is their comparison of the Utah law to voucher programs in other states, programs they claim have achieved some success. There is no legitimate comparison. No other state funds public education so poorly, and no other state's lawmakers have been foolhardy enough to install a universal voucher program at the expense of their public systems.

Utah's voucher law also fails as an antidote to the expected influx of 145,000 new students, many of them low-income immigrants, in the coming decade. Most poor families cannot afford private school for their children, even with a $3,000 voucher.

The bottom line on vouchers is simply this: Sending tax money to private schools is a bad idea. Vote "AGAINST" Referendum 1.

Friday, November 2, 2007

When does "more" replace "wrong" in reporting?

I once learned a lesson about fixing mistakes: It's hard to undo a wrong once it's been done, and a weak attempt at correction sometimes makes the problem worse by bringing the wrong kind of attention to it.

Without getting too deep in the details, "we" didn't like the wallpaper in the kitchen, so "we" chose a paint color to go over it. Part of "we" thought that if we didn't like the wallpaper, "we" should take it down first, then paint the bare walls with our chosen color. But another part of "we" thought it was fine to paint over the wallpaper, though some seams might still show. (Seams are unnoticeable details, right?) So "we" decided to leave the wallpaper up and paint over it. Painting was fun, but when it was done, "we" decided that the color had looked much better on the paint chip than it now did on the kitchen walls. Plus, "we" decided that the seams -- the seams "we" thought would be unnoticeable -- were obvious and distracting. "We" spent a lot of time with sandpaper, and a lot of time with new paint chips, and a lot of time re-painting the kitchen.

As a result, "we" have a lot of memories of that process, and "we" decided not ever to undertake a project like that again.

If only we'd taken the time, learned all that we needed to know and gotten it right the first time, "we" wouldn't still be talking about ways to hide the uneven seams under four coats of Killz primer and paint.

What does wallpaper and paint have to do with accountability in Referendum 1?

When you're deciding your kitchen color, maybe you can afford to make several mistakes in a row. It only costs more time and more money to undo what you did wrong in the first place. So what if the wallpaper seams are a little exaggerated now, through several layers of paint?

But when you're Speaker of the House and you pick up the phone to question a University's choice to publish a study in the public interest, you have to know that you may be asked later, Why did you make that call? What was your intent? What did you hope to accomplish by doing it?

Or, when you're a television reporter who takes on the assignment of deciding which television commercials about Referendum 1 are true and which are false, it matters that you take as much time as necessary to collect all the facts before making such judgments. Stamping "TRUE" and "FALSE" in big red letters, with your face on the screen, and your television station's call letters in the corner, leaves a pretty big seam to cover up if you find later that you made a poor judgment.

In the case of the Speaker's call to the University of Utah to question its publication of a factual report on the voucher referendum, the solution to the problem was to stonewall reporters' questions about it.

Curtis' chief of staff, Chris Bleak, told the Deseret Morning News that Curtis did not want to talk about the call. However, Curtis reportedly told KUTV Ch. 2 that the university would "create hard feelings with certain members of the Legislature" because of the report.

But painting over the answers to those questions with a 'no comment' response (,5143,695224018,00.html) only exaggerates the error of that judgment, and only underscores the questions people have about the political games being played with this public policy.

In the case of KSL's Richard Piatt declaration that the commercials run by Parents for Choice in Education were "TRUE" and the ones run by Utahns for Public Schools were "FALSE," it looks like KSL's solution was to do what "we" did about the kitchen: Use a little sandpaper, and add a lot more primer and paint. Except that KSL's solution was on a bigger, bigger scale than our kitchen; our kitchen isn't seen by tens of thousands of television viewers every night.

As for Mr. Piatt himself, he got a big 'thank you' for that judgment from Richard Eyre, a spokesman for the pro-voucher campaign, when he moderated one of last night's voucher debates ( You can see Mr. Piatt's response there for yourself.

Then you can read Mr. Piatt's second coat of primer and paint here ( While it may have been easy for Mr. Piatt to tell friends and family that he got his original report wrong (, it apparently is much harder to admit it so plainly when viewers (and advertisers, maybe, and future "true-false" subjects) are watching:

In the interest of clarity, to help you make up your own mind on how to vote, here's more information on some key points of contention on Referendum One.

Notice that this report isn't a "retraction" or even a "correction," but just "more information."

Our 'Truth Test' reported that people taking advantage of vouchers could affect public school class sizes, as one ad claims. But we went on to question the real difference it would actually make. If you listened to the story closely, you heard our "True" stamp was really a "True, but..." As we pointed out, the "savings" would actually be three-tenths of one percent of the huge $3.5 Billion education budget.

I only saw "TRUE" stamped across the ad in big, red letters. And when I look at the mail that PCE sent out, I only see "TRUE" stamped across the ad in big, red KSL-stamped letters, too. I don't remember seeing or hearing any "BUT" in big, red letters. Doesn't "TRUE" mean "TRUE"? When my doctor's office stamps my bill "PAID IN FULL," it means I paid the bill in full. There aren't any "buts," and both the doctor's office and I understand that.

We also looked at Congressman Rob Bishop's ad that claims vouchers would be financially "good for public schools." We reported true, but pointed out the voucher program is a net cost to the state, depending on how many vouchers are issued. The cumulative financial impact over those 13 years is the $429-million commonly cited in anti-voucher ads, a figure Utahns for Public Schools says we should have also used in our first report.

This another big, red "TRUE" with a little "but." I remember the big, red "TRUE," but I don't remember the little "but." Does anyone?

The anti-voucher ads, however, consistently say that money would be "diverted from public schools." Again, as we pointed out, voucher money would come from the state's general fund. It's true that might someday be education money, but that is clearly not a matter of fact. The money could be used for transportation, corrections, law enforcement, and so on. That's up to future legislatures and is not spelled out in the voucher law.

So in this case, instead of a little "but," KSL gave it a big, red "FALSE" and now adds a little "maybe" at the end. See what happens when you add more coats of paint to those seams? They get more noticeable, not less noticeable.

But in the case of standards and accountability, one of the major themes of the anti-voucher community's case against Referendum 1, there's no backtracking from KSL's original report. Mr. Piatt just adds some new trim.

About standards, we pointed out how anti-voucher ads about accreditation and accountability claim there are few or none, but clearly, there are some. However, those standards may not be anywhere near the standards and accountability set up for public education.

Public schools must be accountable to the state about everything from attendance to test scores, teacher licensing, school accreditation, textbooks, financial audits and more. Voucher schools are required to give students one norm-referenced test. Teachers have to have a college degree OR special skills, knowledge or expertise in the subjects taught. Schools may or may not be accredited.

Isn't that what the commercial said?

See, adding the trim distracts the eye from a really ugly seam that just won't look right, no matter how hard you sand.

And in the end, Mr. Piatt puts a flower arrangement on the kitchen table and hopes people will stop looking at the errors on the walls.

It's a highly-charged, emotional subject, and both sides firmly believe their sides' rhetoric. Rest assured, the debate won't end after Tuesday's election, regardless of which way voting goes.

Neither will the memories end, of this mess that could have been avoided. Just as "we" won't ever forget the term "Tuscan bronze" in our kitchen, a lot of viewers will remember Mr. Piatt's big, red TRUEs and FALSEs.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Does Will's column pass the "truth test'?

Boy, did Halloween bring the spooks out. (Did you get "bood"?) Washington Post columnist George Will and the Libertarian reporter John Stossel each published columns yesterday that have spread like wildfire through the voucher community this morning. Do a google search and your screen will light up.

But I'm embarrassed for both of them, and for us, and for Utah. In digging for facts that support their point-of-view, they get more wrong than right. Data on the cost of vouchers from an impartial analysis, for example, is printed in the Utah Voter’s Guide. If Mr. Will had used that source rather than the propaganda of the pro-voucher groups, he might have been more accurate with his data.

In the end, Mr. Will's confusion makes Utah and Utahns look bad. This is what happens when a local issue -- that wasn't even a local issue until a national organization brought it to Utah and bought their way into the legislature -- gets the kind of attention that this voucher plan has gotten.

Blogger Oldenburg outdoes himself responding to Will's fantasizing, noting it contains "so many lies in such a short space, that merits an award in rightwing shilling" (

In his summation, he writes,

I won't even bother with the diatribe against Teachers' Unions, only to say that he doesn't mention the out of state money coming in defense of vouchers from Amway founders etc. Oh and when you are calling someone else's arguments "threadbare," Mr. Will, you might want to make sure yours aren't full of crap themselves.

He put it more concisely than I would have, but I'll add this: When a coalition of parents, teachers, business leaders, civil rights groups and others opposes the voucher plan, this isn't juts a a fight of the "teachers union."

The sad thing is that Mr. Will's smear of Utah has been published in newspapers across the nation. As they ate breakfast this morning, thousands of people from coast-to-coast got from his column the only information they were likely ever to read about the Beehive State and its voucher plan this year, mistakes and all. That's embarrassing.

His column is syndicated, so it may continue to run in other newspapers tomorrow and through the weekend. But today, according to Google, it ran in the Washington Post, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the Austin American-Statesman, the Pasadena Star-News, The Union Leader (of New Hampshire), the Hilton Head Island Packet, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Norman (Oklahoma) Transcript, the Grand Forks Herald, the Canton (Ohio) Repository, the Chicago Daily Herald, the Miami Herald, the Daily Herald, the Indianapolis Star, the Daily Camera, the Herald Net, the Sacramento Bee, the Hartford Courant, the News & Observer, the New York Post, the Daily Press,, the Albany Times Union, the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World and the Orlando Sentinel.

And, of course, right here at home in the Deseret Morning News (,5143,695223603,00.html).

Oldenburg's already done a point-by-point analysis, but I want to ask some fundemental questions. Mr. Will may not have all the answers because he demonstrates that he doesn't have a clear picture of the issue. But I'll just ask them out loud and let anyone answer who will (no pun intended).

Isn't it false to say that the basic cost of a student in public school is $7,500, when that's an average -- when costs are lower in elementary schools and higher in high schools, and even higher for students with disabilities and/or special needs? And if we agree on this point, then why do we continue to use that average figure as the standard for thinking about the $3,000 voucher plan?

The fact is that Utah spends the lowest per pupil in the nation, at $5,257 per student (, so Mr. Will is flat wrong when he says we spend $7,500 per child. And, Utah has the largest class sizes in the nation.

Haven't even the supporters of vouchers misled voters about the "average" cost of private schools by taking out the most expensive schools? Mr. Will repeats the lie when he says that the "average cost of tuition" is only $3,000. I saw Richard Eyre explain that they took out the most expensive ones, the one he called the "Mercedes" schools, in a televised debate. If the average cost of private tuition is $8,000, then say it's $8,000.

People supporting vouchers have tried the argument that 150,000 new students are going to flood the public schools in the next decade. But hasn't Governor Jon Huntsman said that with those new students will come families paying taxes, and that the state can accommodate them because our economic growth is strong?

And this may sound crazy, but it's bugged me for a long time and I want to ask it, knowing now how much money Patrick Byrne (and his parents) have poured into this debate. At the end of the school day, who has invested more time and passion into helping to educate Utah's schoolchildren, the tens of thousands of Utah educators, or Mr. Byrne? Who work with those children day-by-day and week-by-week? Who works with those children's parents, grand-parents, foster parents, legal guardians? Who has impromptu parent-teacher meetings in the grocery store, in the mall, at the ballfield, at the post office, and everywhere else? Is that Mr. Byrne, who gave more than $3 million himself to impose the voucher plan on Utah, or is it Utah's educators, who each gave small amounts to fight back against him?

And here's one more thing, since Mr. Will's column discusses political labels. I'm conservative because I watch what I consume and spend, not because I call myself "a" conservative. People who call themselves conservative used to argue for strong accountability above all, in everything -- including public education, and health care, and a lot of other issues. But now, it's bloggers who are left asking where's the accountability, because those in power in Salt Lake City have told us they want a voucher plan that has none in it. While Mr. Will is looking around for new definitions and new labels, I hope he'll figure out what to call those of us who still practice what we preach.

Mr. Will should know that Utahns didn't pick this fight or start this debate. No one here asked for a private school voucher plan before out-of-state financiers -- namely All Children Matter of Michigan, but others, too -- began buying their way into Utah legislative campaigns. Even now, the most recent polls show that nearly 60 percent of Utah voters oppose it for its flaws and failures.

Mr. Will needs to do some better research before he blithely spreads known falsehoods throughout the country through his column. This column, too, might pass Richard Piatt's "truth test" at KSL, but it doesn't tell the truth.