Saturday, October 27, 2007

"And remember to be a compassionate conservative - step over the homeless, not on them."

This is the second part in a series of posts on Utah's Parent Choice in Education Act or comprehensive school voucher program.

I recently received a mailer from the pro-voucher lobby entitled, "VoteFOR1" in seasonal orange and black. The mailer is two pages, front and back, and includes a number of arguments as to why the state's voucher program should be approved. It makes a number of arguments which I will address - and destroy - in turn.

1. "Facts: Referendum 1 is targeted to benefit low - and middle-income families."

At first I accepted this argument. The voucher bill does give money on a graduated basis - the less you make, the more you get. I believed this argument based on the mailer sent out by the State Elections Office which included a graph showing several income levels, ending in $150,000. Since there was nothing in the pamphlet to the contrary, I assumed that if a family made more than $150,000 then they would not qualify for a voucher. I was wrong. Section 806 of the bill states that if you make, "Greater than 250% of the income eligibility guideline" you will receive a minimum of $500/per student. That means that even if you make $10,000,000/year, you will qualify for at least one $500 voucher per student. This is not a program designed to benefit "low and middle income families".

If the program really were aimed at the less fortunate, it would have an income cap - something like $150,000, as I had assumed. If the program has a cap, then the money that would have gone to those making more than that (which is actually a substantial number of families) could be used to supplement the already too-meager proposed vouchers to be given to Utah's poorest families. The State Legislature isn't interested in helping poor Utahns get a choice. If they were, they would have designed a better program.

The Pro-voucher lobby also states in their pamphlet that, "average K-8 private school tuition in Utah is about $4,000 per year", citing the study found here. Being the huge nerd that I am, I read the study. On p. 29 of the .pdf (table 5), the researchers listed the "mean" cost of private schools in Utah as $6,246. I may be wrong, but I believe that 'mean' is the same as 'average', leading me to the conclusion that the pro-voucher lobby has misrepresented the research they cite. The meager $3,000 voucher will not even cover half of the cost of the average private school in Utah. In fact, according to the same study, it will only barely cover the cost of the state's cheapest private schools.

2. "Referendum 1 provides better accountability for both private and public schools by holding schools accountable directly to parents instead of bureaucrats."

This claim is just precious. The pro-voucher lobby provides the following justification for this fiction:
Parents in Utah care about their kids and are capable of choosing good schools with good teachers that meet the needs of their own children.
Aside from the condescending tone, this argument has three major flaws. First, it assumes that even if private schools proliferate, parents will be able to find and enroll their children in a school that meets their needs better than a public school. Enrollment in private schools is (and almost certainly will not be) guaranteed by a voucher.

Second, it assumes that as parents enroll or remove their students from schools that schools will be responsive. This idea of marketplace correction has never been proven to work in a school setting (see the report listed above, as well as the other sources from the mailer). In fact, it seems more likely to fail because if schools can choose between a privately or a publicly funded student, they will choose the private one to avoid having to jump through regulatory hoops.

Finally, it assumes that Utah needs a voucher program to make public and private schools accountable to parents. If they are relying on market theory, private schools are already accountable to parents (with no state oversight) and allowing easier transfer between public schools will create the same accountability.

The mailer goes on to state that:
Local principals and administrators [of public schools] will answer to parents, instead of just bureaucrats.
The support they provide for this claim is that "Wisconsin's scholarship program led to increased local control and parental involvement." This will only happen in Utah if the State Legislature and local school boards change their policies - there is no requirement that they do. Furthermore, this is the only example they provide of increased local control out of the five other voucher programs they cite.

In reality, the "oversight" established by Referendum 1 (HB 148) is nothing beyond the accountability already built into the market and the requirement that a CPA certify every four years that voucher funds are being tracked separately. (See Sec. 807.) There is actually far less oversight over private schools than public schools and there is no accountability.

3. "Scholarship programs like Referendum 1 already exist in several states across the country."

This is patently false. No scholarship program of this magnitude or breadth exists anywhere in the country. That's why it has drawn so much national attention. That is also why it faces such serious Constitutional issues. The major hurdle it faces is a challenge based on the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The controlling Supreme Court case is Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 US 639 (2002). In that case, the Supreme Court asked the question of whether this type of voucher program, which allowed money to go to private religious schools, constituted an impermissible establishment of religion. The Court addressed the question of whether the program was enacted for the primary purpose of establishing religion and whether or not such establishment was its primary effect.

The Court decided that it was not enacted for the primary purpose of establishing religion, relying on the state of the school system:
There is no dispute that the program challenged here was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system. Thus, the question presented is whether the Ohio program nonetheless has the forbidden "effect" of advancing or inhibiting religion.
The Court thus relied upon the "failing" state of the school system as a non-religious justification for the program - Utah's situation is much different. Utah's schools are among the best in the nation and the pro-voucher lobby will have a hard time showing that Utah's schools are "demonstrably failing." Rather, this program will likely appear to be little more than a thinly veiled attempt to subsidize private religious schools - especially in light of the conclusions reached by the study cited above (finding that Utah's religious climate will be the driving force behind private school enrollment). Cleveland's program provided up to 90% of the funding for any private school - giving greater weight to the justification that it is aimed at giving choice to poor families. Because Utah's program provides such a low level of funding, it is unlikely that this defense will hold water here.

Utah's voucher program is ill-conceived and poorly executed. The pro-voucher lobby has misrepresented the facts and ignore glaring problems in the program. Hopefully, Utahns will demonstrate how great our public school system is and vote against Referendum 1.

No comments: