Utah Education Vouchers: To Tell the Truth

I'm sure I don't have the whole truth when it comes to Utah's new education voucher law, but it has become clear to me that many who are opposed to educational choice in Utah don't have the facts, either. Partial truths, mis-truths, and hatred abound when it comes to opponents of Utah educational vouchers.

In this morning's Deseret News opinion section there appeared a "My View" by Jeanetta Williams of the NAACP that didn't do a very good job of telling both sides of the education voucher story. I would like to dissect it paragraph by paragraph.

Over the next decade, approximately $300 million in public funds will be directed to private education facilities at the expense of public education.

I'm not sure where the $300 million figure came from, but it's a good number to work with. It's an estimate, and so are the following numbers, but they're good ones.

Utah education vouchers are based on the the US Department of Agriculture's Income Eligibility Guidelines. Based on these guidelines, if we assume that every student who applies for a "scholarship" under the voucher program comes from a family of 4 whose income (for the 2006-2007 school year) is $26,000 or less, there would exist 10,000 fewer students per year in the public school system over the next 10 years (those who meet 100% of the Guideline will get a $3,000 scholarship in 2007). Based on my estimates, this reduction in public school population would mean that approximately 40 fewer public elementary schools would need to be built in that 10-year period, as well as about 25 fewer junior highs and about 10 fewer high schools.

According the National Education Association, the average amount of money allocated to Utah public education per child in the school year 2005-06 was just over $5,000. With the recent education funding increase in Utah, it is well above that amount now, but let's use the $5,000 figure. Assuming 10,000 fewer students per year in Utah public schools, Utah public education would have (10,000 * $2,000 * 10 years) 200 million more dollars over 10 years ($20 million per year), which could go toward reducing class sizes and increasing teacher salaries.

And this is the worst-case scenario. Students from families who make 2 1/2 times the base level of income eligibility guidelines (or $65,000 for a family of four) are eligible for only a $500 scholarship, leaving $4,500 to the public education system per child that is no longer in the public school system.
Private institutions are not held to the same performance and assessment standards as public schools under federal No Child Left Behind guidelines.
This statement, which does not explain what performance and assessment standards voucher-accepting institutions are required, gives the impression that none are required. This is not true. Under the new law, assessment standards are very much like (if not identical) to such public school standards.

53A-1a-805. Eligible private schools.

(1) To be eligible to enroll a scholarship student, a private school shall:
(c) comply with the antidiscrimination provisions of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000d;
(d) meet state and local health and safety laws and codes;
(e) disclose to the parent of each prospective student, before the student is enrolled, the special education services that will be provided to the student, if any, including the cost of those services;
(i) annually assess the achievement of each student by administering:
(A) a norm-referenced test scored by an independent party that provides a comparison of the student's performance to other students on a national basis;

I know one private school that is seriously considering not accepting vouchers because of the stringent assessment requirements.

Public resources will be used to finance private industry.
Nearly everyone agrees that America owes its children an education, and therefore everyone, regardless of whether they have children, should contribute to our children's education (I actually don't subscribe to that statement like most do, but that's another story). Therefore, it is inappropriate to point to the fact that private industry is being financed without calling attention to the main purpose--these funds are being used to give those who know the needs of the children most--their parents--the ability to choose the best educational alternative for their children.
State funds should be used to address resource equity, teacher recruitment and support, class overcrowding and low per-pupil expenditures in public education instead of supporting private vouchers.
I agree that resources, teacher recruitment and support, smaller class sizes, and per-pupil expenditures are important. In fact, a great deal of money was given in the most recent legislative session to at least significantly remedy what everyone agrees is to some degree a problem. Private vouchers, as I have detailed above, actually make more money available to meet the worthy goals listed by Ms. Williams.

"Voucher program expansion threatens to solidify the abandonment of public schools while leaving behind the majority of low-income students of color," said NAACP National Education Director Michael T.S. Wotorson. "In fact, the majority of these programs offer little or no substantive educational assistance to students with limited English proficiency or those with special needs."

First, as I have stated in this forum before, it is ironic that public educators and public education monopoly supporters have less faith in the public education system than those of us who advocate choice in education. This is the inescapable conclusion derived from statements like those of Michael Wotorson.

Secondly, Utah private education institutions must, by law, publicize the special needs services that they provide.

Thirdly, special needs is a simple issue of supply and demand. Ms. Williams calls attention to a shortcoming of the new law, which is this--Utah public schools spend more for special needs students than they do for other students. Therefore, the current law should be augmented to account for this spending disparity (whatever it is) and allow a special needs student to add this amount to the amount of the voucher for which he or she would otherwise qualify. In such a case, it is very likely that a plethora of private educational institutions would be glad to provide special needs services equivalent to what public schools provide.
The NAACP vigorously resists any measure that results in unequal treatment of poor and minority children in public education. The NAACP is also committed to fostering the multiple benefits our nation obtains through increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

So am I. So are private schools in Utah.

The NAACP National Education Department is calling on the Utah Legislature to hold a special legislative session to reconsider the law and convene a commission of citizens and educational practitioners to make recommendations about implementation of the law and its regulation.

There has been a lot of scuttle lately about putting a referendum on the next state ballot so that the people can decide how their education dollars are spent. Interestingly, I thought that's just what the legislators did, was allow the people (read: parents) to decide how their children's education monies are spent. From my perspective, then, the only unsettled question is whether people who don't have children in school should be required to pay for those who do. Is that what the referendum would ask?


  1. This issue is going to be one of the most facinating local public discussions in recent history. I'm glad you have the energy to look beyond emotion and slogans. Keep it up.

  2. Thank you.

    Sloganeering is used by people who are afraid their point of view is not as valid as they want it to be. I think the truth straight up is much better.

  3. Thanks for visiting The Utah Amicus.

    Why not see how the people of Utah truly feel about vouchers Frank. I know I would back if vouchers were held up after the people have spoken.

    By the way, most of the slogans are coming from PFC.

    I did mot agree with your post, but I am glad to know about your blog.

    May I link you?

    With every best wish,

  4. Rob,

    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, that would be great to have my link on your blogroll. I will add you to mine.

    I think the people do feel positive about educations vouchers, as other polls have indicated that Utahns feel that parents should have more choice in education. I'm not sure why that poll disagrees with the DesNews poll specifically on vouchers, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the emotional charge surrounding the issue right now.

    It seems you are correct that PFC is providing most of the slogans.

    I'd be interested in which specific points you disagree with in my post.

    Thanks again.

  5. Jeanetta Williams3/19/2007 11:57:00 PM

    Private school tuition vouchers, by definition, tend to erode support for public schools. In some states, the existence of private academies for those who can afford them has enabled the persistent lack of financial and community support for the public schools most other students attend. It would be shortsighted to allow that to happen here.

    In Utah we have quality public schools open to all with a wide range of programs designed to meet the needs of a student population with diverse interests and abilities. There are more choices within the Utah public schools than among all private schools, which are both limited in access and focus.
    Jeanetta Williams, President NAACP Salt Lake Branch

  6. Jeanetta,

    Thank you for your comments. I hope that Utah will not suffer from the same problems you describe. I admit that I haven't done a great deal of study on the effects you describe. I have studied a bit about inner-city school choice in places like Milwaukee and it seems these instances have been successful.

    I would like to learn more about your perspective. Do you have statistics or internet links that I can get a better understanding of the problems in other states?

  7. "From my perspective, then, the only unsettled question is whether people who don't have children in school should be required to pay for those who do." I have homeschooled my children from the start. I pay my taxes to support the other children in schools (cousins, nephews, etc...) I don't have a big problem with this. I don't see why parents shouldn't get back some of their tax money if they choose to edcuate their children privately. I don't see how the vouchers can benefit me, but if they can benefit my poor neighbor who sends her children to private school - then I'm glad the voucher is available. It is impossible to implement now, but wouldn't it be nice if taxes were voluntary. Then we might all take a bigger part in educating all of America's children.

  8. Great insight!

    This kind of thing ("Then we might all take a bigger part in educating all of America's children") will likely happen with vouchers. Students will sometimes not have enough from the voucher scholarship to attend the school they really want to, so grandma and grandpa or a benevolent friend or neighbor will have a way to help them finance their education. The student and their parents will be forever greatful, they will feel obligated to get the most out of their education, and it will be a better situation all around!

  9. As a University student nearing graduation to become a Utah school teacher, I am surprised that anyone would think it's ok to have Utah kids taught by unqualified teachers. I am happy to adhere to the requirements and background checks, etc. in order to become a teacher because I believe that educators should be held to a high, unwavering standard of quality. Are there licensed teachers that are not productive that make the rest look bad? Of course there are. There are substandard employees in every profession. But using the 'slugs' in the education system to justify vouchers is not a valid argument. THERE IS ONLY SO MUCH MONEY ALLOCATED TO EDUCATION IN UTAH. So choosing to give vouchers just re-allocates what little money there is, and serves no real purpose. I applaud the licensed, productive, caring school teachers that have such love and concern for their students that they go to work and prove daily that they can do MORE WITH LESS than any other profession in the state. On the high end, some states spend as much as $11,000 per student per year and our Utah teachers do so with $2500. I made a conscious choice to become a teacher, and look forward to helping mold the minds of the future leaders of our state and country. I am only sorry that there is unnecessary bureaucracy to muddle this process.


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