Monday, September 3, 2007

Why I Oppose Vouchers

In this post, I will outline my reasons for opposing the use of publicly funded vouchers for private school education.

1- I am opposed to using public money to promote a religious agenda. When you look who is supporting vouchers and why, it is apparent to me that one of the driving forces behind this movement is to provide public funding to Christian or Mormon schools. Supporters may counter that not allowing vouchers means the government is funding a secular or atheistic agenda. I disagree. Nothing I ever saw in the public schools promoted atheism or secularism. I just don't buy the argument that failure to fund someone's religious agenda is by default a funding of someone else's agenda.

2- Public funding in my view requires that there be public control. Right now, I vote for members of my school board. I have influence over how they prioritize both the placements of schools as well s the curriculum used. The degree to which I or other taxpayers would have control over private schools which receive public funding is questionable and indirect. I also question whether private schools want any degree of oversight. I also question whether or not our state education establishment is prepared to develop auditing programs to ensure that private schools are following public guidelines that should be inherent in public funding.

3- Those who will gain the most immediate benefit from vouchers are those who can already afford to send their kids to private schools. Given Utah's generally regressive tax structure, how can you justify giving out a payout from public funds to those in the highest income brackets from middle to low-income taxpayers? Frankly, you can't.

4- Vouchers will generally only provide people with considerable funds available to consider private schooling as an option. For those in lower income situations, the voucher will never be enough to provide a true choice to send their kids to private schools.

5- Competition between private and public schools is over-rated and has many drawbacks to the public objective of having a well-educated citizenry. Private schools will have several advantages in this "competition" that very well may undermine public education as a whole. Private schools can deny kids on the basis of academics, whereas public schools cannot. Would private schools be required to accept kids with disabilities such as mild autism, ADHD, or kids with other problems? What will this mean for public funding for kids with various disabilities? If public schools find themselves losing the competition, what options will be available to them to make up the difference? Private schools can go to the capital markets to obtain new resources. What if legislators are unwilling to fund the needs of public schools in order to allow them to be competitive?

6- On what basis would a voucher be denied to students who enroll in a school. Example, let's say an Islamic fundamentalist group establishes a private school for their children to teach them jihad against the west, weapons and explosives training, and terrorist tactics? Without proper overshights, have we as a country just funded our own demise?

7- I find it interesting that so many Utahns who find socialism in every government program, fail to see it when there becomes public funding of private enterprise. I think we as a society should always be cautious about providing public funding for private businesses. Competition between the private and public sectors can have good results. FEDEX, UPS and other delivery companies directly compete with the United States Postal Service. However, public funding is not, and should not, be used to fund UPS or FEDEX. The same is true for private schools.

8- Why should public funds go to a private school that may in fact be discriminatory? Getting back to religious schools, is it reasonable to assume that a Mormon school would require some sort of approval process in order for a student to matriculate there? Same with a Christian, Muslim or Jewish school. What if a Christian school right accross the street from an atheist denies a child's application on the basis of the child's parents outspoken belief that Christianity is bogus?

9- My final concern deals with the social consequences of dividing ourselves on the basis of one critieria or another. If Christians only deal with Christians, Mormons with Mormons, the rich with the rich, will we be able to empathize and appreciate others. Public schools bring together a cross-section of kids and place them together. If someone wants to exclude their kids from association with the wider world, that is their prerogative, but I don't believe that exclusion should be publicly funded.

10- Because I believe the most important priority we as a society should be making is ensuring we have as high a quality education as possible that is available to everyone. I believe vouchers have more of a down-side to this objective and it takes away the focus all of us should have on making public schools better. To me it is a punt on second down when we should be devising the right play and the right execution, we are kicking the ball to the opposition and hoping they do something with it.


David said...

That's a very well-considered list. Some questions/comments:

#2 - Are you lucky enough to get to vote for school board members who are not unopposed - in other words do you have a choice? (The majority of School Board elections I've seen only field one candidate.)

#3- I thought those in the highest income brackets could not get vouchers (or could only get much smaller vouchers), am I misinformed on this?

#4- This is a very good concern. Voucher proponents argue that there will be more money per child with vouchers and so the lower income children also benefit. We'd have to wait and see if that really happens.

#7- That's a very good comparison with regards to public/private competition.

#10- Nice imagery.

Frank Staheli said...

Thanks for your comments on Simple Utah Mormon Politics.

I agree with David that the list is well thought out. Here are some of my thoughts.

#10 - I agree that we should have a high quality education. I sincerely think vouchers will help us achieve this, for both those who use vouchers and those who don't. Choice improves quality.

#9 - Public schools in my opinion, as intended by such people as Horace Mann, have had more of a tendency to homogenize(?) our culture. I feel like people should be proud of their heritage and that private schools will have a tendency to improve those cross-cultural qualities. If we let it, the social phenomenon of dividing into our own tribes will occur (and is occurring in public schools now) whether we have private or public schools. There should be no reason for us to teach our children that they are better than others simply because of the school they go to.

#7 - I don't like socialism either. But the current public school system is in my opinion socialist. The founders wanted public education (for free for those who needed the financial help), but they didn't support the universal style of public education that exists today.

#5 - I think that private schools would eventually rise up that provide help for the autistic, disabled, etc. I think that it takes more than the average weighted pupil unit to support such a child, so the solution would be to provide a greater voucher amount for children who are in this category.

#4 - We'll never know until we try. Whether the rich will take advantage of their $500 per child, I don't know. I think that eventually private schools will emerge that are nearly within the cost of the voucher amount. If not, it will put families who want it in close enough proximity to having the funds that they will be able to come up with the extra thousand or so dollars.

#2 - Public funding with its public control is socialism, as you say you don't prefer in #7. More heads are better than a few when it comes to providing any quality good or service, including education. Few heads are why countries like the Soviet Union failed, and why countries like China today still cannot provide education in its outlying villages and towns.

#1 - If there are people who share this view, I am not one of them. I simply prefer the economies of choice, which essentially always cause the provision of a better product or service than when choice is not allowed. I don't think the argument that many make is valid that public funds would be given by the government to religious schools. Government would have no idea which school the family will choose for its children when it provides the voucher to the family. But giving parents the choice of where to educate their children can't help but improve the children's education simply because the parents are now more involved.

Jesse Harris said...

2) Even with vouchers, you still get to elect members of the SBOE. They're charged with oversight of the program. If there's a lack of oversight, there are still elected officials to hold accountable. As has already been noted, most school board elections are non-competitive as it is.

3) I'd be in agreement that a cap on income weighted for family size is probably a Good Thing(TM), but bear in mind that existing private school students cannot take advantage of the program during the first five years. Should it pass in November, this would undoubtedly be changed to institute the aforementioned income cap. It's also worth noting that the high-income parents are receiving a significantly lower amount than what they paid in.

4) I think this is more of a "build it and they will come" scenario. Low-income private schools don't currently exist because there's no market for it.

5) HB 148 requires private schools to comply with federal non-discrimination requirements in order to be eligible. It also requires full disclosure of what services are offered for special needs students and what costs, if any, are associated with them.

6) The school you described would likely fail to pass muster with the federal non-discrimination requirements and would be subsequently denied. Big time.

8) See #5. I get the feeling you haven't read the bill to which you are objecting. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Obi wan liberali said...

First, to David.

#2- I have always had competitive school board races, including the state school board. However, it is true that the State School Board candidates are generally not known very well by the general voters. Unfortunately for a liberal like me, our school board has tended to be dominated by rather conservative individuals whom have hampered public education IMHO.

#3,4- HB148 does have a progressive element to it as I understand it. However, those who currently enroll in private schools will be the only ones who will qualify, and currently, they tend to come from higher income brackets. An inherent assumption behind this bill is that a flood of new schools will open up to serve the poor and middle class due to the higher "scholarship/voucher" they get. I have doubts that this will be the case.

My examination of the bill, makes me wonder whether or not the State School Board will be capable of proper oversight of private schools qualifying under HB148.

Anyway, you and others have made good points for me to consider.

Best regards.

Obi wan liberali said...

I appreciate your insights Frank:

#10,7- No one has given me a convincing argument that vouchers will improve public education. My only point regarding the socialist comment is that government funding for private enterprise is as socialistic as government funded programs, in fact great care needs to take place to ensure that the additional oversight required by the governmental bureaucracy doesn't erode away any savings you get from the privatization you seek to employ.

As for myself, I do not consider all government programs socialistic, particularly public education. Investments in infrastructure, such as education and roads has a tangible and positive impact on the private sector. In my view, government should provide infrastructure, not fund private enterprise nor compete with the private sector whenever possible.

#9- We as a country have a history of apartheid, or the American equivalent, segregation. I believe there is value in kids coming from all walks of life attending the same schools. If we are concerned about the need to maintain our heritage, such opportunities are certainly there through church groups, and other social groups outside of school. My concern is that kids going to Mormon schools, Christian academies, or let's say, acadamies for the promotion of secular humanism, will create an environment where understanding of disparate groups may suffer and further divide an already divided culture.

#5- HB 148 addresses some concerns relating to disabled children, but I have my doubts about how it will work in practice. The costs of disabled children are higher than they are for average and highest functioning children. Looking at it from a business perspective, I see very little incentive to specialize in this field unless either new sources of funding are created or there is a non-business related commitment involved.

#4- The $500 rebate we are giving high income individuals who have already made the decision to send their kids to private schools is coming from a population that is subjected to a generally regressive tax structure. As mentioned in the response to David, I see that there is some progressivity in the "scholarship" given in HB148, but atleast in the short run, I see HB148 taking tax dollars paid by a regressive tax structure and paying money to those who can already afford to send their kids to private schools.

#2- Public funding and public control are socialism? I tend to disagree with that assessment. Socialism is when the means of production is owned by the government. Providing the essential infrastructure for business such as roads and education is just a means to an end to take advantage of certain economies of scale and to use public input to address the needs of the citizenry. I have no problem with private schools. I do have problems with private schools using money from public sources.

#1- It isn't about choice, it is about the use of tax revenues. People have the choice today to send their children to private schools. However, they also have a choice to send them for very little money to public schools, the same schools that have enabled you and me to engage in hopefully insightful and informed dialogue on wide variety of issues. Sometimes, we don't give government, or public schools, enough credit. For students who want to be educated, that opportunity is there for them. Let's not mess with this opportunity and jeopardize public education by funnelling tax dollars to fund private schools.

I appreciate your comments.

Obi wan liberali said...

I noticed Jesse made some comments so this is for him.

#2- State School Board elections generally get little focus. I would anticipate that due to lack of resources, that the kind of auditing and enforcement inherent in HB148 will most likely not occur. Though I've read the bill, I haven't gone into detail into the fiscal note to ensure that sufficient resources will be allocated to provide proper oversight to the program. Also, if more private schools open up, is there a provision to increase funding to the State School Board to meet this need? This is my concern.

#3 I addressed the progressivity of the voucher in previous responses to David and Frank.

#4 I think it is an unreasonable leap of faith that there is a market for schools which appeal to the poor or those with disabilities. Looking at it from a business perspective, they would not be my target market, with or without vouchers.

#5- To me it comes down to the ability to enforce this federal provision. The degree to which schools may have entrance requirements, without violating the federal provision to me is a gray area I'm willing to take a deeper look at.

#6- Again, would audits pick it up? And, on what basis would they deny it?

#8- I've read HB148, but there are alot of unanswered questions, and frankly alot of un-asked questions as far as how it will work. I'm certainly open to insights that indicate that I am misreading the bill that passed and is under possible repeal by the public.

Jesse Harris said...

Thanks for the response.

#2, 5, 6 - I agree that school board elections, be they state or local, usually get very little attention. This failing of the electorate has an equally detrimental effect upon our public school system. I can appreciate that, based on their current duties, the SBOE might not be up to the task to handle more, especially when we aren't keeping tabs on them as it is. Regardless of the voucher question, we should certainly be looking for better oversight of these elected officials.

#4 - Yes, there is a large degree of uncertainty here and I have no idea how to resolve it. I've gathered the "try it and see" approach makes you uncomfortable and I can appreciate it. We all have varying degrees of risk tolerance.

just-commenting said...

I think that your arguments are well-reasoned and persuasive, and I agree with your reasoning and logic. I am very much in favor of many services' being provided by private enterprise, and feel that private schools fill an important rĂ´le. However, I feel very strongly that "private" means exactly what it says - private, and that means no public funding to subsidize something over which the public has no control.

As a physician I had the resources to send my children to any school that we wanted them to attend, but chose public schools and USU for them, and then gave half my income to the arts and those in need of life's basics. My children all have university degrees and are sucessful professionals who send their children to public schools. The "universal" public system works.

I had illiterate great grandparents, grandparents with no more than 4th grade education, an immigrant mother from Europe with only 8 years schooling, and a father (first generation American) who did not have the opportunity to finish high school. My brothers and I, coming from a very non-affluent home, attended public schools all the way through university and graduate degrees, including two of us who are physicians. All this was done with the encouragement of our parents who recognized the value of education and appreciated the potential in the public school system.

The biggest problems in education today come from a lack of initiative and an unwillingness of students to put forth the necessary effort to succeed. Private schools are no guarantee of a better education, only a better chance to indoctrinate the children with unencumbered by any accountability for what they are taught.

I am amused at the red-neck conservatives who cry foul every time government or another public entity restricts their freedom to abuse the environment, or provides assistance to the needy, or funds the public schools. However, they are first at the trough when they think that they can get public funds to support their agenda, or they abuse their positions in the legislature to impose their vision of society or their "values" on the rest of the populace. They want the government to fund or enforce everything that they want, but at the same time scream the loudest when the government funds or manages something that is not in line with their agenda. Then comes the cry to "get the government off our backs!"

I grew up politically very conservative, but have become disgusted with the extremist agenda that has taken over the Republican party, and feel that neither party represents a thinking person trying to live a decent life with regard for the well-being of others.

Keep thinking and writing. I hope that careful analysis of these issues will get others to think rationally as well.

Obi wan liberali said...


I thought I'd better respond to you before I head out of the country.

A real challenge I see with education is a cultural devaluation of it by many Americans. To call someone an "intellectual" is like calling them odd or effeminate in this environment that seems to glorify the simple, "manly man."

There are other cultural currents that seem to be anti-thetical to the pursuit of knowledge, focusing on some cultural distinction. This was true for my generation as well. And I think we are paying a price for that, both economically and at the ballot box.

I get a kick out of those who accused the public school system of a secular humanistic bias. My teachers were mostly committed Mormons and their perspective naturally crept into their teachings. I didn't realize how pervasive it was until I left the church and gained some perspective.

Even as a high school student, I remember debating with my AP History teacher, who insisted that the holocaust was exaggerated by Zionists trying to justify their movement to have jews emigrate to the holy land. When my AP history teacher is a Bircher, it's hard for me to credit those who claim a secular humanistic agenda in our public schools.

Best regards, and I hope to here from you upon my return from Cabo.

y-intercept said...

It is a big fallacy to make a decision simply based on who is supporting it. There is a Mormon Ward next to all of the public schools in Utah.

The people who will benefit most by the voucher system are non-Mormons whose kids are having problems with the local Mormon clicks. Vouchers will end up providing a way into a more secular enviornment.

Looking at the public and charter schools, you will find that most of the schools are trying to compete on academic excellence. The ones that are based on ideological kookery fail, one after another. (My list doesn't show the ones that failed.)

A better way to judge the voucher question is to actually look at the schools. Since there is a Mormon Church next to every public school in Utah, what we are likely to see is this group wanting to keep their children in the local public school. The schools that thrive will be those pushing academic excellence, pushing art or that are pushing a performance art curriculum.

Stephen said...

I really do think that integration of society in school is important.

"The "universal" public system works." -- at least it seems to work much better than we suspect.

Statdoc said...

Your reasons for opposition to vouchers are well thought out; however, they seem to imply that 1. The public school system cannot (and therefore does not) discriminate on the basis of disability
2. The public school system supports individuality

I currently have 4 of my 5 children in public schools, and I had my own educational needs well served in public schools. However, I have a bright son who has ADHD and a writing disability. In second grade, his public school principal recommended that we take him to a private school because they were unable to provide him with an appropriate education. He attended a private school for a few years (successfully) although it was financially very difficult. In 7th and 8th grade, we took him back to the public schools - until that principal recommended that we take him elsewhere. We applied to two public schools in the area, and I personally spoke with those principals, who were very interested in having him come there because of his high test scores. Less than a week later, both principals refused to accept him because they had spoken with the previous school, and found out about his ADHD and writing disability (discrimination).

We finally took him to an out of district school where he is barely surviving (although he's had some excellent teachers). He is now a senior, and although he is on track for getting an associates degree at SLCC by spring (he has passed 7 AP exams so far), he is not on track for high school graduation next spring.

The public school focus tends to be on process, not on learning. The fact that he learns differently from most students means that he often does not get credit for his learning. In 9th grade, he told me that he had to choose between learning and getting a good grade, and he asked me what he should do. I (idealistically) told him to focus on learning, and that his teachers would certainly give him a grade based on his learning once we talked to them. I was wrong. Much of school is about compliance with authority at all costs (even learning), and about reducing individuality into a one-size-fits-all education.

The football analogy - although interesting - is inaccurate. There is only one team on the field, and the ball has not made progress in years - maybe hoping for a forfeit. Vouchers would send another team onto the field, hopefully convincing the home team (public schools) to start moving the ball.

Jason Bourne said...

"It's All About the Union Stupid"

As we draw closer to a vote in November of school vouchers here in Utah, it's becoming increasingly clear that this fight has nothing to do with the education of our children, but rather the desperate concern of the teachers Union to maintain a monopoly over education dollars.

Here is another report on how teachers are treating parents who question the Teachers Union’s position on Referendum 1.

Vanocur from ABC news has a woman on camera claiming she went in for Parent-Teacher Conference and was asked to donate to Utahns for Public Schools. When she refused and said she supports vouchers, the teacher became hostile. The responses from Utahns for Public Schools, the UEA and SL School District are hilarious.

(ABC 4 News)
SALT LAKE CITY (ABC 4 News) - Is the political battle over school vouchers in Utah starting to interfere with your child's education? Well, that's what one Utah parent is wondering after - according to her - she was asked for an anti-voucher contribution during a recent parent teacher conference. On November 6th, Utah voters will be asked to vote for or against a new voucher plan. That plan would provide up to 3 thousand dollars of state money for parents who want to send children to private school. But now one parent claims those against Referendum One may be crossing a line. Here's what she says happened when she went to a parent teacher conference last week. The parent claims, "We went through about ten minutes of the conference and then she handed me an envelope and asked me if I was interested in donating money to the fund against the voucher system." The parent also says she was stunned when asked to contribute money during the parent teacher conference and then when she refused, says a heated exchange took place. "When I said no I'm not interested, I support the vouchers, she continued to go on and tell me why I was wrong," says the parent.

The State Board of Education has made it clear that fund-raising while on duty is not allowed.

And the anti-voucher group, Utahns for Public Schools, emailed ABC 4 this response: "Our campaign does not comment on anonymous reports. However, it is interesting to note that the claims of this anonymous source would never see the light of day in an unaccountable private voucher school because they aren't held to the same high standards as public schools."

As for the Salt Lake School district and the UEA, they say a teacher at the school was fanning herself with the anti-voucher materials during a parent teacher conference, and when a parent asked what they were, the district and the UEA claim the teacher then jokingly asked for a contribution.

And after we learned of their comments, ABC 4 checked back with the parent who made the original claim.

Stepicks Gone Wild said...

First of all Stephen is not very bright, but perhaps he is a good case for change.

Our system stinks! That's all I care about... it totally sucks. We are ranked close to 30th internationally for public schooling. I don't think that is a statistic we should applaud.

When was the last time someone replied to a person who mentioned they had attended a public school with, "Oh... you were privileged... I wish I hadn't gone to that private school!" NEVER.

It all comes down to one thing... money. Teachers and their union do not want to be held accountable, and thanks to people like Stephen who never take the time to investigate just how bad it has gotten, we are stuck with a system that is FAILING our children.

THAT IS THE POINT RIGHT? Not religion?!?!?! Not politics?!?!?!?! It's our kids and their future... right? I would not guess that from this blog.

Vouchers may not be the ultimate answer, but they are a start to fixing the worst run public system on the planet.