Some Quick Voucher Myths and Facts

It seems that strong opinions and high emotions are working hard to keep clarity in the voucher debate well at bay. In the last several days, I've witnessed an incredible number of absolutely false statements concerning Utah's voucher law ranging from simple misunderstandings to outright fallacies. It's time to reign in some of the egregious un-truths so we can stick to the facts.

MYTH: Utah's voucher law has no accountability.

FACT: Section 5 of HB 148 requires regular achievement testing for all students participating in the voucher program. It also requires full disclosure of test results to parents AND disclosure of anonymized results to any third party that requests them. This is in additional to regular audits by an independent CPA to be given to the state both prior to becoming eligible and every four years thereafter. You may argue that this portion of the law is not enough accountability or that you don't believe it will be properly enforced or used. You cannot, however, say there is zero accountability.

MYTH: This will only subsidize students already in private schools.

FACT: The bill actively prohibits participation by any student who was not enrolled full-time in a public school prior to Jan 1, 2007. A student can also be eligible if he or she was born after Sep 1, 2001 or was not a resident of the state prior to Jan 1, 2007. This means that until the bill is amended, current private school students may not participate and eligibility is restricted to new enrollments at private schools.

MYTH: Vouchers violate the Utah State Consitution's prohibition on appropriating state money to religious organizations for educational purposes.

FACT: The United States Supreme Court has already held that such provisions in Ohio do not prohibit a voucher system. Because this issue has already been decided by the highest court in the nation, the Utah Supreme Court is likely to defer to that judgment should a lawsuit be brought on those grounds.

Now carry on. I've heard plenty of well-reasoned opposition to vouchers that don't have to depend on things that just aren't so. 

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30 Responses to Some Quick Voucher Myths and Facts

  1. marshall says:

    Fact: No student will be able to go to go to a private school on vouchers alone. You are selling a pipe dream to these poor parents and you know it.

  2. Jesse says:

    That’s actually really hard to tell one way or the other. I’ve had a heck of a time finding the 2004 USU study cited by both pro- and anti-voucher camps as evidence that the schools either are or are not affordable. I’ve seen both $3800 and $5000 cited as average tuition costs, but nothing indicates if they are the mean or median or show the raw data used in the calculation.

    Given that I see disinformation from all angles concerning the numbers, I’m disinclined to believe any of them and would rather head straight to the source. The problem is finding it. Anyone willing to point me in the right direction?

  3. Jeremy says:

    The current plan does mandate minimal accountability measures for schools accepting voucher money. That really isn’t much for voucher supporters to brag about. There are still ginormous holes which would allow for misuse of the taxpayer funds spent on private school tuition vouchers under the current plan.

    The plan does restrict currently enrolled private school students from accepting vouchers. It is good that we don’t immediately begin subsidizing private school tuition for these students because the costs of the program would skyrocket if we did. The fact still remains though that for the first 13 years of this program we build up to the point where people who never would have enrolled in public schools with or without vouchers will still be getting tuition subsidies for their private schooling. In effect the restriction on vouchers for kids currently enrolled in private school is only temporary. The legislature estimates that the program’s costs increase by approximately 5.5 million per year due to these unnecessary additional tuition subsidies. It is projected that Utah’s voucher plan will be an increasing burden on Utah’s taxpayers as far as fiscal projections are possible.

    Utah’s constitutional restrictions on public funds being spent on religious instruction are more specific than the Ohio language. You’re correct that vouchers pass constitutional muster when it comes to the U.S. Constitution but the contention that this plan complies with the language of Art 1 Sec 4 of Utah’s constitution will have to be tested in the courts. Utah taxpayers will pay millions of dollars for the legal wrangling required to come to a final decision on this. The legality of this voucher plan is far from clear cut.

    I’ll grant that all your facts are technically correct. Unfortunately they don’t tell the whole story. Vouchers will result in lots of new costs for taxpayers and they promise few quantifiable benefits. Here’s hoping Utah’s voters are smart enough to keep us from being saddled with this new entitlement program.

  4. Tim says:

    If the paper-thin accountability scheme for private schools is good enough, they should have made it the same for public schools. It is unfair to have two accountability systems that are so far apart.

    Also, you miss the point on the religion problem. Prior court cases are not based on the UTAH constitution and therefore are meaningless in our case. No other state has such a restrictive statement regarding religion and schools. OUR constitution clearly says no and to do so legally would require a change.

  5. Bob says:

    Let’s compare the two state constitutions:

    Ohio:

    “…but no religious or other sect, or sects, shall ever have any exclusive right to, or control of, any part of the school funds of this state. ”

    Utah:

    “Neither the state of Utah nor its political subdivisions may make any appropriation for the direct support of any school or educational institution controlled by any religious organization. ”

    They are different. Even if the SCOTUS ruling you brought up had addressed the issue, it would not have baring, as the UT constitution is stricter on the subject.

  6. I, too, am surprised by the false and misleading statements. I wouldn’t believe everything PCE tells you.

    STATEMENT: Utah’s voucher law has no accountability.

    RESPONSE: The flimsy testing requirement brings about neither accountability nor competition. The test can be on any subject and the results are available only upon request. Even the actual results could be changed (e.g., from a percentile to a simple Pass-Fail). A “math” voucher school, for instance, can offer a math test but is not required to offer a language arts test. Christian academies could offer a Bible Studies test and call it good. Furthermore, since the tests are all different, it is impossible to compare the performance of voucher schools with other schools. Even The Sutherland Institute (staunch voucher advocates) had to remove private school test results from their utahschools.org web site because comparisons were impossible.

    So…if the school can test on whatever they want and the results cannot be compared, I call that ZERO accountability.

    ****

    STATEMENT: This will only subsidize students already in private schools.

    RESPONSE: You are correct that this is a myth…for now. However I don’t know of folks who are raising this issue. The 13 year estimates from the Legislative Fiscal Analyst (the time it takes for the statement to become moot since by then all private school students will be receiving the voucher) shows significant cost increases to fund the program as more and more private school students do become eligible for the voucher. This is money that we would NOT otherwise be spending. The impartial analysis prepared by legislative staff proves that the program will grow the size of government and will cost taxpayers far more than it will save. PCE does not want you to see this document. You can find it at http://le.utah.gov/lrgc/impartial.pdf

    ****

    STATEMENT: Vouchers violate the Utah State Consitution’s prohibition on appropriating state money to religious organizations for educational purposes.

    RESPONSE: Utah’s Constitution is much more specific and direct in stating that public funds may not be used for religious purposes. Given our history, this direct language was necessary for Utah to achieve statehood.

  7. Jesse says:

    Craig: I believe little of what PCE says. Even if they are correct on anything, I’m inclined to verify because they don’t seem to generally be honest.

    The language governing testing is very specific that it requires a generally-accepted method of testing (like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) to fulfill the requirements.

  8. Coltakashi says:

    I am an attorney, and I see no reason to think the Utah constitutional language would be any more a barrier to vouchers than the Ohio constitution. Indeed, the Utah constitution prohibits “direct support” but the plain meaning of the words means that, by definition, “indirect support” is NOT prohibited.

    The issue under the Ohio, Utah and US Constitutions is whether government is using its power of taxation to fund religious institutions. The Supreme Court ruling in 2002 specifically found that, when a parent can use a voucher at any private school, religious or not, the chain of causation is broken and the State is no longer responsible for where he directs the funding.

    Legally it is no different than if the parent were a State employee who was using the State funds he receives as a salary to pay tithing to his church or send his child to BYU! Once the control of the funds passes to the parent, he can consider religious factors in making that decision.

    Consider a hypothetical: The State adds to the salaries of all State employees an “education bonus”. It is not taxed by the State. The employee can use the education bonus to support any school his child attends, whether a public school or private, secular or parochial, and elementary, secondary, or college. If the employee uses it to pay tuition at BYU, is that “direct support” of a religious school? No, no more than if the parent pays the tuition out of the rest of his salary.

    The “religious schools” argument against vouchers assumes that vouchers that could only be used at secular private schools would not violate the Utah Constitution or the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, actively discriminating against a school purely because of its religious affiliation is an infringement on religious liberty, and a denial of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.

    Vouchers given to parents, which parents control, is simply not a “direct support” to a parochial school. Parents control the switch. They can divert the voucher to any secular private school, or take their child back to the public schools. Even if some legislator hoped the program would eventually support a school sponsored by his church, he would have no way of ensuring that any of it would end up there. The actual direct beneficiaries of the voucher will be the student and his or her parents. A parochial school might become a secondary beneficiary, but of course it also has to assume the costs of educating the child. The most important secondary beneficiary is the State itself, which finances education so it can have an educated and law-abiding work force that will grow up to pay taxes and serve as citizens, jurors, voters, candidates for office, and employees of the State performing necessary public services.

    The denial of initial voucher payments to students currently enrolled in private schools ensures that there is no net cost to the State of vouchers. Every student who leaves the public schools decreases the costs of education by $7,000. Paying out up to $3000 of that savings still leaves a $4000 net gain.

    Once the voucher program has been in place for several years, the net financial gain to the State of having more students attend private schools will create sufficient savings that the State can afford to give vouchers to existing students with no additional net educational costs. Additionally, students in private schools now will graduate or otherwise leave, so natural turnover will also decrease the disparity and eventually all students in private schools will be there at no net cost to the State.

    If you could get thousands of parents every year to volunteer to assume part of the cost of education in public schools, and let the State drop its cost for education to only $3000 per student whose parents volunteer, it is clear there would be a net financial gain to the State. Yet that is exactly the fiscal situation with vouchers. Parents are volunteering to pick up part of the cost of educating their kids, relieving the State of part of the burden. How do you get a net cost to the State from vouchers, rather than a net savings?

    I have a problem with the whole attitude of people who complain about giving education funds to parents. They think the money paid in taxes “belongs” to the State. But it comes from taxpayers, including the parents of children in private schools. The purpose of supporting education is to have an intelligent and law abiding and tax-paying citizenry. The State gets that whether the kids graduate from private or public schools.

    We support families and children with State and Federal funds for medical care. We do not require them to go to a State-funded clinic and hospital, but rather let them buy services from any doctor or hospital, some of which have historically had religious affiliations. As long as they get the medical care they need, we don’t care that it is provided by a private company, whether for-profit or non-profit. We should be able to get educational services for children on the same basis, with a mix of public and private sources.

    Utah public schools have complained about the burdens of the Federal No Child Left Behind Act. I propose that any state that has a voucher program available to all students should be exempted from NCLB, since parents will be able to redistribute funding without the intervention of bureaucrats.

    People who say parents in Utah are not smart enough to recognize a good school are asserting that Utah schools have done a lousy job of teaching kids the difference between good and bad education, so that as parents they are clueless. We let parents pick a spouse, a doctor, a house, a job, a car. Why not let them pick a school? The arguments about private schools not being supervised are really claims that parents are incompetent. These are elitist arguments.

    Let’s point out one of the nasty secrets of public education. College students who get education degrees tend to be at the lower end of the scale on ACT, SAT and other tests. The grades they get in education courses are inflated compared to the grades in other majors like science. My friends enrolled in the education program attested to the boring and useless nature of many of their classes. Head to head, the average college graduate in Utah is at least as intelligent as the average public school teacher. This is not an indictment of the teachers (I attended public schools in Utah and so did my kids), but it IS a criticism of those who claim that people in public schools are smarter than their customers, the parents.

    The claim that you have to have taken a full program of those boring courses to be a teacher is nonsensical. People who have PhDs or JDs in subject matters like science, mathematics, history or law are fully qualified to teach university and graduate school courses, but are supposedly incompetent to teach the same subject to high school students.

    The only real negative impact that will be suffered by anyone from vouchers is the UEA and the monopoly power of school boards and school district bureaucracies. They see their power slipping away, and they are using every argument they can, invoking religious and racial prejudice, and demonstrating their own lack of education, ignorance, and mendacity. If the UEA and school boards were confident in the quality of their product, they would have nothing to fear from vouchers. Their desperation is evidence that those running Utah’s public schools believe that few people would attend them if they had a choice. That being so, vouchers must surely be needed.

  9. The attorney’s argument is significantly weakened by the emotional “monopoly” and “bureaucracies” comments (not to mention the implication that school teachers are less intelligent than other college grads and that their degrees are less rigorous).

    Whatever…

    *****

    Jesse, thanks for your comments. The langugage only says that they have to administer a nationally norm-referenced test. This could be any type of test that is administered in multiple states. It can be on *any* subject and can exclude any other subject.

    Here’s the language:

    “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”

  10. Jesse says:

    Craig: You’ll have no argument from me that hot-button language does little to help us understand each other’s positions. I’ve been trying to be much better about avoiding such things. That said, I try and pick past the red meat rhetoric we will all sometimes get caught up in to see the greater point being made.

    I can see how that language could be misinterpreted in the way you describe, though I would hope that the SBOE would jump in and say “dude, no way” if someone tried it.

  11. Jesse, thanks for your feedback and your level-headedness.

    The State Board might be able to clarify the statute somewhat through administrative rule. But if they did they’d be running headlong into an obstinate Administrative Rules Review Committee, chaired by none other than Howard Stephenson. He would then accuse the State Board of overstepping their mandate and would rile up his buddies to seek retribution through bitter-pill legislation such as his most recent threat to force drill-and-kill math standards through legislative bullying. Sad? True?

  12. Jesse says:

    Given Sen. Stephenson’s attitudes toward UTOPIA that I witnessed today, I don’t doubt it.

  13. Bill Fox says:

    the one thing that is evident is that Public Schools are not working out for a considerable part of the population. If the child is tested on an annual basis and performs to standards that is certainly as good as we are getting now from public schools and with a heck of a lot less money. The argument made that some won’t be able to afford is a “lets get you off the subject “question. The question should be if only one child is able to take advantage of the program, do better in school, and cost the state less money it should be a go. Personally, I think the home schooled should also be included as it would help parents make the decision to devote more time to their kids. Home schooling has allready shown that it is ready for prime time and in fact does very well in things such as national spelling bee’s against the Publicly taught .

  14. jasonthe says:

    Regarding your first argument, that of accountability, if the system meant to hold those involved accountable is not enforceable, what accountability exists?

    Seems to me that qualifies as zero accountability.

    I understand the point you are trying to make, but I couldn’t get past that first statement enough to give the rest of it the consideration it may have deserved.

    One thing you cannot say about the suggested Voucher program is that it doesn’t have some very large holes, and the issue of accountability would have to be the most glaring of them all.

  15. Jesse says:

    I also conceded that concerns about inadequate enforcement are perfectly valid, but not the assertion that accountability wasn’t even a consideration.

  16. Bill,

    You said:

    “The question should be if only one child is able to take advantage of the program, do better in school, and cost the state less money it should be a go.”

    If only that were true. Right now, the cost to taxpayers to educate a private school student is $0. As vouchers are phased in, we will be paying a portion of all private school students (even a portion of the ultra-wealthy kids – tell me how this is a good idea). The state’s fiscal analysts determined that the program will cost the state $430 million over 13 years. The actual savings resulting from students leaving the public school system and transferring to a private school is far less. The net cost is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

    This information is located in the impartial analysis that will appear in the voter information pamphlet. You can read it here:

    http://le.utah.gov/lrgc/impartial.pdf

    The unintended consequences of the bill will quickly nullify any good it might do. If you google “florida voucher fraud,” for instance, you would be shocked to see how many problems their *limited* program has endured. Sure, some students did benefit from the voucher. But many others did not due to the fraud, waste, and abuse that was rampant because the voucher system did not hold the businesses accountable for the money they received. And our proposed bill is far more lax than any other proposal ever passed before.

    My advice – if you are truly for vouchers, vote down this bad bill and come back again with a bill that honors the public trust. My own assertion is that once you do this you end up with a charter school. I am very supportive of charters because you get the autonomy along with the accountability.

  17. Jesse says:

    Craig: I have a question on the impartial analysis and the figures quoted. Are the savings amounts a net amount after costs or a gross amount before costs? The analysis itself is unclear and the difference is rather important.

    If they are gross figures, I’m struggling to figure out how the costs can increase over 14-fold while savings barely double in light of the maximum voucher amount being just under half of per-pupil expenditures. The math just doesn’t seem to work. Is there a more in-depth document that shows the calculations behind the numbers?

  18. Shauna says:

    “Right now, the cost to taxpayers to educate a private school student is $0”

    Well, that’s not exactly true either. People who send their children to private school are taxpayers. And right now they’re spending a bundle to send their kids to private school while simultaneously paying for someone else’s kid to go public school.

  19. Jesse says:

    Well… it’s true in the sense that money goes into the education system and doesn’t get expended on children who opt out of it.

  20. Shauna says:

    I know what he meant. I just think it’s odd that once the money is “in the system” all of a sudden no one cares about the wants and needs of the people who put it there in the first place.

    I think about vouchers like this: It’s like an educational savings account the government administers. Not unlike medical savings accounts, if you don’t use the money, you don’t get a refund (if you don’t have school-age kids, you pay anyway). If you do plan to use the money, you get reimbursed for approved spending (approved schools, both private and public). If you choose a public school, hooray for you, you don’t have to pay anything extra. If you choose a private school though, you pay additional tuition on top of what you already paid (taxes) because a portion of your “educational savings plan” is sent to the school that you DIDN’T choose.

    And somehow people are still able to twist it into stealing money from public schools. Whose money was it to begin with???

  21. Shauna,

    The funds come from all taxpayers. The educational savings account and double taxation arguments are invalid unless and until parents are actually paying, through a use tax, for every one of their children to attend school. If that were the scenario, a tuition tax credit might make sense. As it is now, though, all taxpayers, whether they have children currently in public schools or not, are investing in public education for the good of both the children as individuals and for society as a whole. All taxpayers should have a say in how those dollars are spent, hence the referendum effort.

    As a taxpayer, I am uncomfortable with this bill – not with the concept of working with private schools, but with the specifics of the bill that turns over public funds with no real accountability to the taxpayer on how those funds are spent. There are no curriculum requirements, no requirements for licensed teachers, no ability to compare performance, and no publicly available accounting for where those dollars go. If we’re going to open up the treasury to private schools, I want some real assurances that my investment is going to benefit both the child and to society. The fraud, waste, and abuse in other states is troubling, and our voucher bill is far more porous than those programs ever were (if you don’t believe me look at the programs in Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin).

    I find charter schools to be a much more viable option because they honor both autonomy to parents and accountability to the taxpayers.

    *******

    Jesse – the reason for the escalating costs is simple. As it stands, the bill does not allow for existing private school students to use a voucher. However, with each passing year, there are more and more private school students who never intended to go to public schools that will become eligible for taxpayer funding. Eventually (in 13 years to be precise), all private school students will be eligible for the voucher. This amounts to a $430 million dollar cost.

    Now, what about the savings? The savings are obtained from public school students opting out and going to private schools. In the impartial analysis, the fiscal analysts provided low and high ranges to show the estimated number of such students. Although this number will grow somewhat with each year, it does not come close to the number of private school students that will become eligible for the voucher. On the low end (fewer switchers), the savings amount to only about 1/7 of the cost of the vouchers. On the high end (more switchers), it is still only about 1/3 of the cost, which means that the program will still cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than it will save.

    PCE does not want people to know this information.

    Thanks…Craig.

  22. Jesse says:

    That still doesn’t entirely answer my question. You’ve insinuated that the PDF you linked has gross figures but I’m looking for verification of such.

  23. Sorry about that, Jesse. The impartial analysis deals with gross figures. From my understanding, it is showing the total cost of the program (e.g., the raw amount given to private schools in the form of vouchers + mitigation funds to the districts for switchers for the first 5 years + a small amount needed to administer the program) and then the total savings (the total we would have spent on switchers had they stayed). The legislative fiscal analyst’s office should be able to provide the detailed breakdowns on a year-by-year basis.

    BTW the impartial analysis from the PDF is exactly what voters will see in the voter information guide and in the voting booth.

    I hope I answered your question – if not, let me know.

    Thanks…Craig.

  24. Bradley Ross says:

    Coltakashi, thanks for your reading of the legal language of the two constitutions. My layman reading is the same as yours. I don’t see where people are getting the argument that the Utah constitution is more strict than the Ohio constitution. Your 1st Amendment argument was also excellent. I wish I could write like that.

  25. marshall says:

    Shauna,

    We all benefit from having an educated society in the same way we all benefit from a highway system with portions we may never use.

    How is this hard to grasp?

    If you don’t want to deal with a country were public education will always be a priority then find another country to live where you won’t have to deal with your money being used on the very thing that makes our country great.

  26. Jesse says:

    Marshall: In all of this, it’s important to differentiate between public education and publicly-funded education. Many of us feel that the current public education system is akin to granting an exclusive government contract for publicly funded education.

  27. Shauna says:

    Marshall: Looks like the education system neglected to teach you to read. I never said that I don’t believe we all benefit from having an educated society. That would be a really stupid statement. And since I’m not a stupid person, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t treat me like one.

    We obviously disagree on vouchers. I’m sorry that bothers you so much that you lose your manners and turn into a jerk.

    Craig: Thank you for your insights and for disagreeing with class.

  28. Bill Fox says:

    Craig, “are investing in public education for the good of the children as individuals & Society as a whole” If that’s what it is for I want to choose my own investment tool!

    The current system is broken. There is no accountability in the public schools yet you are worried about accountability in the private. There is only one way to get accountability for the greatest amount of students and that is to give choice to the parents.

    You talk about costs. When was the last time you saw a bond issued for a private school. School bonds are not ever figured into the costs of educating children. I find . More Private Schools means less spent on Bonds.

    BTW the Wisconsin program is working well other than the fact that administrations after Tommy Thompson have done every thing they can to undermind the program. I find your arguments the same old tired arguments that the education unions have been using forever with only the plea for more money missing currently. I am wondering when the other shoe is going to drop

  29. Bill Fox says:

    Marshall, it is not hard to grasp. Just like our highway dollars are being wasted today on sound walls for people who choose to build next to the freeway, and for feel good traffic lights on the entrances to our freeways, the public school system is becoming a feel good, wasteful, and antiquated system that needs to be overhauled. Just as the freeways are becoming social engineering platforms,( think high occupancy lanes), public schools spend more time and money on social engineering as the years drag on. Choice is a needed injection to cure this disease.

  30. Jesse,

    Great post. I’m afraid that I went the “red meat” route on my blog. Now, I am having buyer’s remorse. I wish that I had consulted with you first. Well done to you, though!

    A.W.

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