Saturday, October 6, 2007

Vouchers: Choice in Education

School vouchers are a hot issue in Utah this election time. Vouchers were passed in another election, but the teacher’s union and others banded together to get enough signatures to put it to vote again. Funny how that happened. You never see anyone trying to repeal a bond or overthrow a new tax, but this is about control over our best and biggest resource—our children.

I have to admit I’m growing a little cranky about this issue. Why? Because it seems people are willing to admit we have a problem with education in this state, but they aren’t willing to trying anything new. They simply want more money, but throwing money will not solve the problem. It hasn’t in other states and it won’t here. What we need is education on a level where parents are more involved. We don’t need a lot of high paid administrators or bad teachers that are impossible to fire. We need a system that allows children to be educated on a local level and good teachers who will be paid better because they deserve it. I think vouchers can achieve both of these objectives.

My three oldest children have attended both private and public schools. Though the private school was a financial struggle in the beginning, my husband and I felt that was where our children should be. We loved the school, which they attended through eighth grade. After that, they went to public schools. Before school started, I met the teachers and did a little research to make sure my kids were in the right classes. For two of my children, the public school has also been a largely positive experience. But for one of my daughters, the biggest regret I have is that I let her leave the private school. She desperately needed that extra guidance. I see the same tendencies in my youngest and you can bet that I won’t be making the same mistake with her. For my other two boys, I’m yet undecided. Because of my economic situation, I have the choice. Yet many other parents do not. And they should. If Referendum 1 is passed, they will.

Below are some of the arguments against vouchers and my response to them:

Private schools won’t be accountable to anyone for the funds.
Good gracious! What are they talking about? Private school have boards they must answer to! Even so, every school that accepts these funds must be willing to account for the spending. They must account for all their spending anyway, so it’s no big deal. Still, I find it ironic that private schools will only be given half the per-student money and the opposition wants additional controls over that. Give them a break! Private schools are accountable and they make the funds stretch or they wouldn’t be in business today. The truth is they can educate children for much less because they are very mindful of every dime.

Private schools cost so much that vouchers won’t really create a choice.
Well, if you are in the lowest wage bracket at the school my children attend, it would pay for about three fourths of the tuition. That is doable for many, many families, and if you need to make up the difference, there are options. My mother cleaned the private school I attended each night in order to make money to send me there. She felt it was worth the sacrifice. Eventually, to her great regret, she eventually had to pull us out. It was impossible on my father’s teacher’s salary to keep up with eight children. But if she’d had vouchers available, she could have made up the difference. If the voucher system passes, there will be many schools that will make it possible for students to attend. (See below.)

There aren’t enough private schools to serve everyone who might want to use vouchers, especially in rural areas.
That’s what is so wonderful about a free market system. New schools will emerge as the demand increases, even in rural areas. And these schools, especially grade schools will be able to educate the children for less and the results will be amazing. Much like some of our local charter schools that are making education work.

And even if you don't live in an area where there are private schools, our society still benefits because overall we are educating children better. Take my own situation, for example. My children already attend a private school and as I understand it I will not be eligible to receive the voucher. That doesn't bother me because I am still a part of society at large and will benefit indirectly.

Private school teachers don’t have to be certified teachers.
So what? They still need to be experts at what they do, which is far more important. For instance, I don’t have a degree in writing, but I could teach your child or you anything you want to know about writing. Bill Gates is a college drop-out. What could he teach? I know I’d love to take a few classes from him. The world is full of smart people who are better teachers than many who hold a fancy degree.

However, having said that, private school are careful about their teachers. All the teachers in my children’s private school have degrees, but it wasn’t always the case. Regardless, parents actually have a say, so if the teacher isn’t up to snuff, he or she won’t last long. That’s one of the best thing about a private school. If parents don’t like a teacher, they can act. They can pull their child out and go to another school, they can talk to other parents and the administration, they can insist that the teacher be accountable. Thus, parents are empowered. A bad teacher will not continue teaching in that school. Period. Yes, this is frightening for bad teachers, but great news for the many, many good teachers who love what they do. Once at a public jr high school, I met an honors English teacher my son was going to have for English. After meeting her, I immediately changed my mind and put him in a different class. I knew as a parent that she would be horrible for my son. So he didn’t take honors English that year. Turns out this teacher was not only a boy-hater, but a person who denigrated the religious faith of the children in her class. No one liked her, and as a result, they didn’t learn nearly what they should have. What happened? Well, the school got rid of her, but since she had tenure, the school district couldn’t really fire her. She just moved to another school to torture other children. Now that’s a crime. I would have done a much better job, degree or no.

My son also had one bad term with a math teacher who spent the class period railing against the students and giving them more homework because they talked. My son basically taught himself from the book. I had to do some fancy dancing around the school to get him out of that class and into another teacher’s class. After a week my son said, “Wow, he actually teaches the concepts.” He was much happier. I learned that teacher had once worked at a private school and had been fired, but here he was in the public school making more children hate math. Yes, my children have had many great public school teachers as well, but the bad ones are so hard to out of the classroom! Private schools remove that problem.

I also believe vouchers will open the way to pay good teachers a better salary. As school compete for good teachers, they will have to offer more. All teachers are not paid equally, even now. Free market will help them earn what they are worth, in or out of the current system.

Vouchers are just going to help the rich.
Not a chance. It’s a tiered benefit based on what you make. And keep in mind that the rich will continue to have choice regardless, so voucher are for the poor and lower middle class. Besides, the people who already have their children in a private school like I do, don’t qualify for benefit. Vouchers will help those who need another option. If you need to make up the difference, there will be a way, whether it's making more meals from scratch or cleaning the school a few hours at night.

Public schools will lose money.
Actually, they’ll lose students, not money. In fact, they keep half the money for that student. If you do the math, you’ll see that will definitely help our overcrowded class rooms. With more and more children destined to enter the education system, vouchers might be the only way to actually keep our public schools running smoothly. Well, that or double your taxes. I know which I’d prefer.

The other thing is that vouchers is less than four tenths (0.04 percent) of the entire multi-billion dollar education fund. Ten times that amount wouldn't even be half of a percent of the budget. It's a minuscule amount compared to the good it can do. So why not try it out? we have $150,000 more children soon entering schools. There is simply not enough room for them, unless you want to see your education taxes triple to pay for more facilities. I know I can't afford that. Can you?

And if the voucher system doesn’t work, don’t you think the legislature and parents are smart enough to pull out? If you answered no, well, shame on you. Parents want the best for their children and they will fight for it.

Vouchers will lead to segregation.
Actually, it will encourage a more diverse student body. Currently, children are assigned to schools based on where they live, so there are many schools in Utah that have only poor and minority students. Vouchers will give these students a wider choice of schools, which will mix backgrounds and races a lot more than the current system can. Private schools don’t have sports programs. Many don’t because sports eats up education dollars like nothing else. I personally am more interested in education and could care less about the sports. (In fact, if my daughter wanted to be a cheerleader, I’d be horribly disheartened because I want her to achieve things for herself, not watch from the sidelines as someone else tries.) But my son loves soccer so if he continues playing, I’ll likely end up sending him to a public high school. But it will be MY CHOICE, not something forced on me.

Vouchers will involve Utah in a lawsuit if it gives money to religious schools.
I don't even want to touch this one. I'm trusting out leaders to see that the bill is written in a way that will save us from this. But I for one don't CARE what institution gets the money as long as they teach reading, writing, arithmetic. Who cares what else they teach? Isn't that up to parents? It's not something forced on the general public as it would be in a public school, so who cares?

Again, the main issue I see is control. And it’s high time parents took back that control. We should be deciding what schools our children attend. We should have more say in the curriculum and the teachers, not a union or a small group of administrators. A free market education system will increase the quality of education across the board. Look at America. Even our poorest people make more money than in many other countries. Most of us aren’t starving or standing in line for rations. Why? Because of the free market system that encourages competition based on the law of supply and demand. When schools compete for our children and our money, they will become better.

Think about that the next time you’re waiting in line at a some government-run bureau. I’ll bet you’ll start wishing they had a little competition.

For more information about Referendum 1 visit http://votefor1.org. If you would like to get a sign supporting Referendum 1 in your yard, please contact Perry Renner at perryrenner@gmail.com.

11 comments:

  1. You really have researched this--wow. I'm with you, always have been. My kids went to private school for a couple of years. The school struggled financially to the point where it had to move to a new location and we were unable to continue sending our kids there. We have some of the best public schools in the state and my kids are doing fine--but they all benefited a great deal from the way they learned in the private school they attended. Vouchers would have been wonderful and, as you said, competition is a good thing. It will help everyone--including public schools.

    One thing that confuses me is the way they word it--voting for referendum one is voting against vouchers? right?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Rachel,

    Very well thought out and argued blog. All of my kids have gone to public schools and probably will. I am a huge supporter of Utah schools and teachers. That being said, I think vouchers can provide more opportunities without hurting public schools at all. I firmly believe that the huge administrative overhead is what hurts public schools. Except for my oldest, we have moved all three of our kids to a local charter school. There is less administration, more parent involvement, smaller classes, and students earn the right to go to school there.

    I personally think the money being waved about is a non-issue. Anyone who thinks it is unfair that their tax dollars will support a school system their kids don’t attend should recognize that already happens with every family who has their child attend a private school and still pays property taxes. At least with the voucher program there is some equity.

    The one concern I do have id of losing some of the best kids from public schools to private. But honestly that is a problem of the system as a whole and is already happening.

    Sadly I don't think the voucher initiative will pass, because teachers unions have flagged it as a bad thing. Unfortunately anything that promotes other options or requires accountability the NEA comes out against. Knee jerk reactions are never good. Instead of spending so much money killing the initiative, I’d like to see the NEA work with state legislators to come up with new and innovative compromises that seek the best education for all our kids.

    ReplyDelete
  3. A question I always wondered: Do you think the voucher will really make enough difference to a parent who is deciding whether or not they can afford private school? I know it will help a little, but would the voucher be enough to impact the decision?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Actually, voting FOR Referendum 1 is voting FOR the vouchers.

    And Jeff, you are right about the money. It's a drop in the bucket. I'm really sad about the misinformation that seems to be out there against vouchers. Honestly, even if it were the worst mistake in the world, it could be corrected right away without affecting our current system. The money really is a non-issue.

    As for whether or not the voucher will help people decide to send their children to a private school, this is a definite yes. I've met many people who had three or more children in a private school and loved it, but it became too much of a burden and soon they had only one and, eventually they pulled out that child as well. The child usually ends up back at the public school and the issues that sent him/her to the private school in the first place remain a problem.

    My own mother baby-sat during the day and cleaned a private school at night to afford tuition, but with eight kids it became too much of a burden. My father, a school teacher, didn't have the funds to help. My mother still believes that pulling two of my siblings out of that private school was the worst thing she ever did, and their lives really reflect that truth, but she had no choice. With the voucher system, she would have been able to keep them in.

    At my children's school, you'd need less than a thousand dollars to pay the rest of the tuition if you were in the lowest tax bracket. If it were me, I'd baby-sit to get the rest of that money. Or mow lawns. Whatever it took, if I decided that was best for my child. So yes, it will make a difference. A big one. And don't forget that new schools will emerge, and those are usually an even better value. Patrons might not have to pay anything more.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You make a lot of good points. A lot of your arguments are spot on. That said, I'm strongly opposed to vouchers.

    The problem, simply put, is that vouchers only provide a "choice in education" to people who can afford to use them. Despite what you've said in your blog, there are a ton of people who could never make use of these vouchers. There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Utah school kids who could never afford to use the vouchers.

    Look at the numbers: according to the Sutherland Institute (the PRO-voucher group who's done the research behind vouchers), the average private school tuition is about $4500 per year. (This number is absurd, by the way. It's not a real average. The Sutherland Institute didn't include several private schools in that average because they were "obviously unaffordable". So the average tuition of cheap private schools is $4500. Anyway.) To qualify for the largest voucher, $3000, you must be in a family of at least four making less than $38000 per year.

    So, let's say you have two kids (a requirement for $3000) and you have the average tuition, $4500 per kid per year. You'd still have to come up with $1500 per kid to cover the additional tuition. And the solution is nowhere near as simple as Rachel makes it sound: in a lot of these families, the parent(s) are already working several jobs--they're just getting minimum wage. Almost thirty percent of Utah's kids are below the poverty line--that's a family income of $20,650 per year! How are those kids going to come up with an extra $1500 per year? I'd venture to guess that if many of these families had 100% free tuition, and yet they still had to cross town to take their kids to private school, it'd still be an impossible challenge.


    Okay, so not everyone can make use of vouchers. However, if we believe voucher proponents, then those kids who remain in public schools will benefit from small class sizes and increased funding, right? Hardly.

    Right now there are about 19,000 kids in private school. If we're wildly optimistic and miraculously discover that we could double that enrollment, then 19,000 new kids (out of more than 500,000 in the state) can go private. That works out to about a 3.5% reduction in class size, or changing a 30-kid classroom to a 29-kid classroom. That'll make a big difference!

    Likewise, with per student spending of $7500 per kid distributed from those 19,000 to the remaining 500,000, it equates to a $285 increase. That's a 3.8% increase.

    So, the poor kids don't get the "choice in education" at the private schools, and instead they get a 3.5% decrease in class size and 3.8% increase in spending. Does that seem right?

    Also, the money left in the public schools from new private school students only lasts for five years. So, five years from now public schools will return to exactly as they are now--with vouchers for those who can use it and nothing for those who can't.


    As for your comments about segregation: lets say that 50,000 people apply for those 19,000 spots (which are an optimistic estimate anyway). Private schools could pick and choose exactly who they want, because their limited spots are in very high demand. They'd have to use some kind of differentiating factor to decide: what would it be? Grades? Family? Increase tuition price? Sure, they might not segregate along racial/cultural lines, but they very plausibly would become exclusive to the best and brightest. At that point, vouchers would not only not offer a "choice in education" to poor kids, they also wouldn't offer "choice in education" to the less-intelligent.


    Anyway, I've already gone on too long. I have other, more minor reasons for disliking vouchers, but it really comes down to equality. Vouchers, as the law is written, do not address the needs of the poor. And when we start offering benefits to the middle and upper classes that we don't offer to the lower, we're reinforcing privelege.

    There is no equality of opportunity with vouchers. They're a tax break for the wealthy, nothing more. And when our society focuses the desires of the wealthy at the expense of the poor, we're cruisin' for a bruisin'. (Wasn't there something in Mosiah about that?)

    ReplyDelete
  6. I appreciate your comments, Rob, but I still completely disagree with you. The math doesn't add up. Take out any amount of kids and leave half the money equals more money for everyone left, even if they can't afford a public school. The money stays in that school for five years, yes, but then it continues to stay FOREVER in the general education fund, to be used in any way the education board sees fit. Again, I firmly believe it’s not really about money, it’s about control of our children and what they should be learning.

    And there really are a lot of people who can’t go to public schools now who will be able to use them with the vouchers. And you have to remember that more private schools will emerge to fill the gap, and many of them will be affordable. If you take into account the growth of the charter schools, we can predict even greater growth for the private schools as they extend their reach. I know the school where my children attend plans to add three whole grades next year, regardless of voucher availability. A free market encourages growth. A government monopoly encourages only mediocrity. We’ve see it time and time again in hundreds of applications. We have highly paid administrators and poorly paid teachers. That will not change with the current system, not even if you throw more money at it. That hasn’t worked in the highest dollars per student schools yet in this country.

    AND WE HAVE 150,000 MORE CHILDREN ENTERING OUR SCHOOLS IN THE NEXT TEN YEARS! Where are we going to put them? They estimate that our school taxes will have to triple to maintain our current system. Are we able to do that? No way.

    It’s interesting to note that many colleges are private and those private schools are the best for a reason. And do you think all college teachers are all paid alike? Not on your life. So should we force them to come down to the state college level? Uh, that wouldn’t be a good thing. If you raise the bar on the k-12 education system everyone, even those on the lowest tier (whether due to a lack of intelligence or poverty) will be lifted as well, and thus society benefits.

    I’ve been involved with the private education for many years and I’ve seen people struggling to send their child to the schools with only one parent working. They manage because they feel it’s vital for their child. Vouchers would definitely make it easier for them. And many schools offer half tuition scholarships as well to needy families (in addition to other funds). My mother managed for years on a teacher’s salary. We shopped for clothes at D.I., we never ate out, and we simply made do. It can be done. Perhaps not by every single person, but by enough that it will benefit society over all.

    You say vouchers would unfairly subsidize the rich, and that’s such a thing isn’t fair, but again I don’t see that. Do we have an unfair system when people have to pay to send their child to the school of their choice while everyone else gets a free education? I think so.

    I think leaving the current education system in place would be horribly unfair. It’s as if voucher-opponents are saying, “Well, not everyone will be able to take advantage of it, so you must leave your child in a bad school so he can do as badly as the rest of us. Otherwise, things won’t be fair.” So instead of raising the bar, we keep it low so that everyone can reach it. For Utah’s children, that is a tragic injustice.

    ReplyDelete
  7. (I'm not sure what happened to my previous comment... It might have gotten lost in the internet ether?)

    Anyway, if that comment got lost, there's a great article on the front page of the Deseret News today which reassesses the numbers behind vouchers. It's pretty scathing, really. Not only does it show that the average tuition ($7,824) is much higher than the tuition the pro-voucher groups state (about $4500), but it also shows how these pro-voucher groups have been manipulating the numbers: doing things like leaving out the expensive schools from their figures, as well as leaving out all the private high schools from their figures.

    They also show that there is very little room for growth in enrollment--much less than I expected (and I didn't expect very much).

    Anyway, it's an interesting read: Voucher Funds Limited

    ReplyDelete
  8. As far as I can see, both your comments are posted, Rob. I do realize that many private high schools aren't in the equation and that didn't bother me because I feel that most people will chose to attend regular high schools during those later grades. There are some stupendous programs in the public high schools these days that do challenge children. There is a lot more choice than in the k-8 grades. My son was able to earn an associate degree before he graduated.

    Unfortunately, most parents aren't told about those additional programs, and in fact the school counselors told me they are supposed to pump their "product" instead of the optional classes, but that's another story. So, yeah, if you're going to lump in high schools, and the few very costly schools, I can see where numbers would be skewed. But there are likely very few students who would choose to go to a private high school if they haven't been attending already, so I don't think it's an issue.

    One thing you've continuously overlooked, though, is the law of supply and demand. There will be more schools appearing. Definitely. With voucher support, many of the existing k-8 schools can and WILL extend for near the same amount of money. My school is doing just that without vouchers.

    So I'm sorry but these old arguments don't sway me at all. I've been in the private school system, and I know what the costs are. I know I was willing to do anything to help my child attend even when I didn't have the means to do so. And I did it while paying taxes so eveyone's else children could continue with their education as well. Keep in mind, you don't have to send your child to an expensive private school. Help an existing school expand, or band together with other parents and start your own school. The options will be numerous.

    The bottom line remains the same. All this talk about money is a smokescreen for the real issue of control. The money is almost nothing, and if the program doesn't work, we'll toss it. We have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. The real issue is about who controls the education of our children. And I for one am not content to give that job to someone else.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Well, I think that's the key difference. For you the bottom line is control. For me the bottom line is equality. I have absolutely no problem with you controlling the quality of your children's education--provided that (1) you pay for it yourself, or (2) if you want it funded by tax dollars, ALL kids receive the same options.

    (As far as supply and demand, I addressed that in the comment that disappeared. Basic economic theory--supply and demand, in fact--very plainly refutes your argument. If there is more demand than supply (as there will be, as evidenced by the very few available spots in private schools) then tuition costs will increase, not stay the same or decrease. You say that the free market--competition--is the solution to schools. If you believe that then you can't also believe that these free market schools are going to act like charities, keeping their prices low. That's the opposite of competition and free market.)

    Of course, all of this argument is likely moot anyway. Every neutral poll in the last six months has showed very little public support for vouchers--I think the most recent was 60% against and 34% in favor. So, it's an interesting debate, but probably not much will change.

    ReplyDelete
  10. When I think about free market, I think about Wal-mart and all the like stores who are competing at very base rates. In marketing there are two ways to create demand: a lot of advertising and a bigger price (think high-end stores), or a low price that keeps people coming back (Wal-mart). Eventually the low prices will lead to more marketing and more demand, as seen by the long lines at Wal-mart. Private schools will likely divide into these two categories. I believe there will be enough for everyone.

    People who want vouchers for their children don't want special attention, they just want the exact same tax dollars spent on their child as on the other children in the public system (well, actually they are only asking for half). That's fairness in my book. The fact that parents have to pay double for their children is not fair at all. I should be able to choose where the tax dollar for my child should be spent, and that should be the place where my child is attending school--whever that may be.

    But I do agree with you that the point is a difficult one because there is so much fear and suspicion involved. I think we have the duty to see if vouchers helps Utah, but unfortunately, most people would rather see equality rather than excellence. And I'm don't mean you in particular, Rob, because I know you want good education, but I feel that most people really would rather see thei children be even rather than risk having another child somehow receive more benefits.

    Moreover, the teacher's union is very strong, and they are certainly not willing to see the amount of private teachers grow because that lessens their power and control.

    Again, for me, the issue is not going to affect my family. I'll continue sending my children wherever I want, even if I have to work graveshift to make that happen. I just wish everyone had the same opportunity.

    ReplyDelete
  11. One last word about money. The AVERAGE of the vouchers would only be 2,000, not 3,000 because many people who make more money won't qualify for the entire amount. That throw holes in Rob's carefully plotted numbers above, meaning the actual cost he quoted above decreases substantially compared to the reduction of class sizes, meaning all classrooms benefit a great deal more than the opposition likes to to let on. But of course we've already realized this isn't about the money.

    ReplyDelete

Because of harassment in connection with the copyright infringement of one of my novels, I have to moderate posts. Sorry for the pain! Your comment will post as soon as it has been approved.