The Disingenuous Campaign Against Vouchers

The anti-voucher crowd was handed a narrow defeat this week with the 38-37 passage of HB148, a bill expected to sail through the Senate and land on Gov. Huntsman's desk Real Soon Now(TM). This is despite using misinformation, gross hyperbole, doubletalk and massive amounts of FUD to try swaying elected officials, policymakers, and public opinion to their camp. Sadly, these dishonest ones far outnumber the few rational minds bringing up valid concerns such as funding differences for special needs students.

FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) is among the most powerful weapons any group can employ. It doesn't require research or studies. It doesn't require valid concerns or bring up serious considerations. It's sole purpose is to ask misleading questions to cause doubts without any solid basis. These questions and statements often bring up extreme hypotheticals, exaggerate possible outcomes and rely heavily on unverifiable anecdotal evidence. The sole purpose is to make sure that the unknown outcome is so terrifying that nobody would dare consider it regardless of what data has been presented. It turns what should be a logical and rational explanation into a fear-driven emotional response.

The various groups campaigning against vouchers employ FUD to a hubristic fault. To hear them tell it, any voucher program will result in an illiterate society where only the rich get quality education. Now step back for a minute. Doesn't that seem like a very dire prediction far beyond rationality? Maybe especially so once you consider that this hasn't happened anywhere else vouchers have been enacted? Indeed, some voucher programs have been in effect for over a decade without quantifiable negative effects despite personal anecdotes and a few highly-circulated news stories.

Tell me if any of these sounds familiar:

  • "This will result in less funding for public schools."
  • "We're going to see only rich kids getting a quality education."
  • "There will be an exodus of students from public schools leaving behind poor minority students. Their quality of education will suffer."
  • "Private schools will segregate and discriminate against students."
  • "Children from religious families will be put in radical fundamentalist settings."
  • "You already have a choice between different public schools."

There's a common thread between them: all of them reference hypothetical situations without anything to back it up. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call classic fear-mongering, FUD of the lowest order.

For starters, there's the tired "less funding" argument. The bill that just passed is NOT funded from monies that would have otherwise gone to public schools, so we can immediately scratch that one off of the list. If anything, you'd think schools would be glad to have one less seat occupied but get to keep the money. Even if the funds were paid from the education fund, a portion of that child's funding stays within the school district. This means that for every child that opts out, per-pupil funding would still increase.

The legislature has also been increasing education funding at a break-neck pace. Between FY98 and FY05, the budget for Utah public schools grew 58% while enrollment increased only 9%. This follows a national trend: inflation-adjusted K-12 education spending has risen 122% in the last 37 years. Despite this, test scores stay flat and we're constantly in crisis mode. Apparently increased funding is giving us a very poor bang for our buck, yet they persist that money solves all problems.

So what are they really afraid of? There's one of two possibilities: losing control of that child's education or facing the real possibility that their districts will have to shrink to compensate for lower enrollment. I guess the UEA prefers a scenario where 10,000 kids are funded at $5K per pupil as opposed to 7,000 kids funded at $6K per pupil. I can understand that too. Private school teachers are not unionized, so they don't want to see their dues shrinking as employment moves to the private sector. What's very telling in all of this is what teachers do with their own children. Nationwide, teachers are twice as likely to enroll their children in private school as non-teachers. I suppose they know something we don't.

The "rich kid" argument is another one that has no basis in fact. The voucher bill is tiered so that those with lower incomes receive a higher benefit. Those most likely to benefit immediately are middle-class students from families just shy of affording to send their kids to a private school. A family of four would end up getting the minimum benefit with $65,000 per year or greater in income, a threshold low enough to cover many middle-class families. I don't know about you, but clearing $65K a year doesn't seem like "rich person" territory to me.

Arguments concerning minority and poor students are probably the most insulting. Is the insinuation that without white kids around, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and pretty much every other minority will perform lower? Is it also insinuated that rich kids boost test scores for poor kids just by being in the same school? Both of these arguments don't seem to have any kind of rational basis at all, nor can I think of any kind of justification for them. The segregation argument is about as empty. Looking at the Challenger School in Sandy, we can see that minorities are represented in higher proportions than the surrounding population. Not bad for a school charging around $10,000 a year, is it? Salt Lake Junior Academy shows a similar trend, accepting a higher percentage of minorities than is in the surrounding population.

Given all of the other misinformation, it's only a matter of time before religion starts being thrown on their barbecue of lies. What we see are two lies rolled into one: the only people upset with public schools are religious extremists and their only objection is not getting religious instruction forced into the classroom. While there may be a few nuts of this breed, most of the religious objections come from policies that subvert parental authority. This includes things like diversity classes, sensitivity training and a myriad of insane policies on everything from clothing to dating practices. While some parents may not care or actually encourage these policies, others are furious at the level of micromanaged meddling that goes on and prevents actual education.

The last of the lies is that parents actually do have plenty of choices without vouchers. Their argument is that you can choose other schools within the district. This is akin to saying "Well, you don't like this McDonalds, but there's plenty of other ones around the valley." I would have thought that kind of thinking died with Soviet Russia. It reminds me too much of Henry Ford's "you can have any color you want" comments. Choice is also lacking when it is compelled. When the choice is between a superior product an an inferior product you've already paid for, it's not difficult to guess which one wins out, is it? This is a key reason why enrollments in
private schools aren't higher.

All in all, we see that the anti-voucher activists can't find much more than multi-pronged FUD to make their case. There is no opposing proposition for improving school quality other than raising funding, we don't hear anything about ways to cut costs in school districts and we don't hear much about increasing parental satisfaction. The best they have is hysterical screaming in the hopes that enough people panic and go their way.

My prediction? The bill will pass and a loose coalition lead by the UEA will try to nix it in court. If they lose, they'll do whatever it takes to try and make vouchers fail instead of giving them a chance. If vouchers are as bad as they claim, let them dig their own hole. I suspect, however, they have a very real fear that it will be a success despite their efforts at sabotage and will stop at nothing to try and bring it down.

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6 Responses

  1. Kristi says:

    Where did you get $65,000? I’ve read $3000 per child per year. That still doesn’t help the lower class people. If I make $30K and have a house I’m probably living almost paycheck to paycheck as it is. If my kid goes to Challenger that leaves me with $7K to come up with. Not to mention they probably aren’t anywhere near my neighborhood (gas money). And there’s only room for about 6000 more students in Private schools. Think about who they’re going to pick, a lower income student whose parents won’t be donating anything to the PTA or wealthier students whose parents will be able to give more? That’s just simple economics. Now, this doesn’t mean I’m against it, because I think parents need more choice than regular public school (I hope my kid can get into a charter). But I still think this is another scenario where the lower classes are getting left out.

  2. Kristi says:

    Oh, and everyone kid (and their parents) I know who go to private schools (especially Challenger schools) are such SNOBS about it. This bill is just going to make more snobs.
    (there’s another FUD argument for you)

  3. Reach Upward says:

    Bingo. Thanks for your astute post. Not only do you flay the anti-voucher arguments very well, but you hit on one of my hot button issues; the constantly increasing cost of education with nothing to show for it.

  4. Jesse says:

    That $65K figure is the income eligibility requirement, not the amount of a voucher. You wouldn’t believe the hoops I jumped through to figure out the income eligibility requirements.

    First, I read the bill. Is says the income requirements are based on the amount for federal free lunches in schools and lists the percentages with the voucher amounts for each bracket. I then found out that the eligibility guidelines for free lunches is 1.3 times the federal poverty level. THEN I had to go find out the current federal poverty level ($20,000 for a family of four). That means you need to earn $26,000 or less per year to qualify for the full $3,000 voucher. Once you get up to 250% of this baseline, you’re up to $65,000 of annual income at which point you get a whole $500 worth of voucher. Hardly seems worth it, huh?

  5. Kristi says:

    Ahhhh, now I’m less confused. Thank you.
    Back to my point then. No one who makes 26K/year will be able to make up the difference with just $3000. So I still think this falls short of the intended goal. Like you said, even people making 65K (which isn’t a lot after taxes) it hardly seems worth it for an extra $500/ kid.

  6. Bill Fox says:

    It sounds like challeger is an expensive school. My wife teaches at a Private school that costs $5500 per school year. Private schools aren’t for everyone. I would guess, if I were considering sending mine to a private school, Id appreciate any help I could get.

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