Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Nuts and Bolts of Voucher Funding -- Part 1--Each student in Utah does NOT cost $7500 to educate

The funding argument is crucial in the voucher debate because it is abused by Parents for Choice in Education, the pro-voucher legislators, and the Eyre’s Oreo cookie ad to convince people that the voucher “experiment” will save money. Some of my neighbors have expressed more or less the sentiment, “Why not try something different if it saves the schools money?”

I believe that I can clearly explain some complex concepts that have been clouded in the debate, showing the damage to our public school system. I hope all will give thought to the long-term implications of a universal voucher law.

These are five MAJOR untruths perpetuated by voucher proponents about the voucher bill funding. The first four deal with the actual cost of a student who switches from a public school to a private school using a voucher; the last one explains HB 148’s hidden cost of $71,000,000 a year when fully implemented:

  1. Using the $7500 dollars per student funding statistic as an indicator of classroom spending or savings.
  1. Ignoring, or deliberately diverting attention from the true amount of money the state actually sends districts per student in WPU and MSP.
  1. Misrepresenting the mitigation money as a full refund for the money lost from the voucher and allowing the misconception that the mitigation money goes directly back to the affected school.
  1. Claiming that the schools won’t lose any money because the voucher check itself is written from the General Fund rather than the Uniform School Fund.
  1. Subsidizing the tuition for ALL private school students forever, but phasing in the implementation of that aspect of the bill over thirteen years to hide “what will become essentially a subsidy for students who would have attended private school in any case.” —Randy Raphael, Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst, 2-16-07

Untruth #1: Using the $7500 dollars per student funding statistic as an indicator of classroom spending or savings.

First, the public schools are designed so that each tax dollar benefits many students at once, not just one individual. That $7500 statistic is NOT a traveling sum of money that can be given to or taken away from a school as a student enrolls or leaves. The WPU is a set amount given to each district according to number of students enrolled, but it is allotted to the district as a lump sum, not for individuals. This quote from the official budget page on WPU is instructive: “The WPU is not a plan of expenditure, or budget, for the school district or charter school to follow but a mechanism to derive total program cost and distribute revenues.” Did you get that? The WPU is not a budget, and neither are the rest of the state allocated funds. The statistic of total funding per student was devised as a way to objectively compare states with drastically different numbers of kids. It is a blunt comparison tool and a way to divide monies out to the districts.

The WPU and other monies were never intended to show exactly what was spent on each kid. Just imagine one student in one classroom, and try to make the numbers work in your head. There is no way to rationally conclude that each student uses a unique $7500 dollars. Almost all of the costs are spread out, shared, and fixed, whether it be personnel, facilities, or equipment. Here is the source of the $7500 estimate for the 2008 school year, the Utah Taxpayers Association. This entry links to their 2006 annual report:

Read all nine categories they include in their “total spending per student.” Now think of what money in these categories will actually be saved by a student leaving the school. The marginal cost of individual students coming and going is a few bucks in paper and supplies. Next, look at the spreadsheet on the second page and find the percentages of Local, State, and Federal funding. The state government only funded 49% of Salt Lake District’s budget in 2006, but all of those federal and local funds (Such as the $229 million dollar bond passed by Alpine District last November that exclusively funds construction and upkeep.) are counted in the $7500 per student a year.

HB 148 only deals with state dispersed education funding. The individual districts collect local and federal funds independently of the state budget process and it is dishonest to say those funds are “left over” to spread around the classroom. Most local funds are specifically tied up in buildings and interest on the huge building loans, and most federal funds most be spent on very specific programs that benefit all students.

Part 2 is coming tonight or tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Flyer distributed late Oct. and early Nov. in Orem neighborhoods

This is the flyer distributed through one neighborhood initially. It represents my personal research and opinions and was made completely with my own time and money. A few other teachers have made copies and plan on distributing them also. So the first sentence naming the specific neighborhood has been deleted.



I am a public school teacher who wants the best for all children. I believe that vouchers are not a solution to any of the problems facing schools in Utah or the Alpine School District. In fact, the voucher campaign has been misleading about their philosophy and funding, and vouchers will hurt the majority of students in public schools while subsidizing a select few who choose to leave. This flyer outlines my reasoning and includes a lot of web links so that you can research the issue yourself.

This is a link to the official Utah Voter Information Guide on Referendum 1 with arguments from both sides, an impartial fiscal analysis, and the actual text of the bill, HB 148.

Public schools lift society up

Public schools are designed to teach all children and are open to all children. Public education available to all students is one of the main reasons that the United States has been able to create the largest and most prosperous middle class in the history of the world. And Utah’s public schools are great! Our students have some of the highest test scores, graduation rates, and percentages of students going on to college in the country while spending the least amount of money per student.

The inevitable and frustrating problems we sometimes face in public education are worth it when considering the alternative—a system where private schools are the only choice and only for those who can afford them. We have the entire history of the world before U.S. public education in the 20th century as empirical evidence that a completely private system will not educate all students.

Vouchers are specifically designed to hurt public schools

Vouchers are not new. They have been rejected by many states for over 30 years. Influential thinkers promote vouchers as a tool to “defund” public schools until they are eliminated, leaving a “free market” of only private schools. After failing in Utah repeatedly, voucher advocates added “mitigation money” to the bill in order to “mitigate” their negative effect on public schools, allowing them to pass vouchers by one vote. (See below for more on the real effect of the mitigation dollars.) Senator Curtis Bramble, the sponsor of HB 148, is a “Legislative Advisor” to a large think tank, The Heartland Institute, that advocates vouchers on a national basis. You can check their website for many pro-voucher arguments and see what you think. I am including a link to an essay by the president of The Heartland Institute where he specifically explains to libertarians how vouchers are the first step in the plan to “wean” the public from public schools and completely privatize education.

This explains why organized, out-of-state groups poured $750,000 into the 2006 Utah legislative campaign to elect those who promised to vote for vouchers, why they ran ads this spring trying to stop the public from petitioning for a referendum on the law, and why they initiated the current multi-million dollar ad campaign trying to convince voters that this subsidy will help public schools. They are convinced that Utah is the start of a tidal wave of voucher experiments across the country designed to redistribute public funds to individuals attending private schools.

Vouchers and Money—The Oreo commercial isn’t true

Some voucher supporters sincerely believe public schools are not worth the millions of dollars spent and should be eliminated. We have an honest disagreement. But the voucher campaign in Utah claims that vouchers will actually help public schools through increased funding. This is an effort to confuse people who may want improvements in our schools, but would never dream of hurting them.

There is a commercial currently running that features a prominent Utah couple using Oreos to claim that each publicly educated child in Utah costs $7500, so that when we spend $3000 on a voucher it leaves $4000 extra dollars to be spent on the remaining students. Here is a link to a true cookie video:

To explain briefly, public schools are designed so that each tax dollar benefits many students at once, not just one individual. The voucher supporters totaled every expense possible: teachers, administrators, counselors, custodians, heat and electricity, extra-curricular programs, school lunch, computers, buses, buildings, the interest on the loans used to construct the buildings, etc., and included funds that come from the federal government, school bonds in individual districts (The $229 million dollar bond Alpine District Voters approved last year is counted as “state funding!”), and school trust land money, to claim that the state spends a unique $7500 on each student. This statistic is useful to compare education funding between states, but has no basis in reality when it comes to how money is actually spent in a classroom.

A student does not uniquely cost $7500 dollars in a school year. The state WPU, or the amount of tax dollars the state government actually sends each school district per student, is $2417 for the 07-08 school year.

The state also sends block grants for special ed., ESL, and other programs which leads to an average state expenditure of around $3500-3800 dollars per student. (The inexact number stems from the disagreement on figures from the various sources arguing about this bill.) Those WPU dollars are spread out to pay for the above-listed variety of things to help all students. So when little Johnny leaves a public school, taking a $3000 dollar voucher with him, there are not $4000 dollars left unspent to redistribute among the other children. The $4000 dollars is already allocated to some program or employee of the district, and it wasn’t provided by the state government anyway. The “mitigation monies” only refund the difference in the state’s average portion of funding for five years. So the state gives the district $500-800 dollars for five years…in exchange for removing $3000 dollars from district funding for thirteen years which has to be taken out of some other resource because Johnny only uniquely costs the school a few bucks in supplies each year.

Rich families subsidized with public money

And it gets worse. Look at the impartial fiscal analysis in the official voter information guide and notice how the program gets more and more expensive each year, costing at least $71,000,000 each year after 2020. Why does the cost grow like that? If the voucher bill passes, the kindergarten students of current private school families are eligible for a voucher next year, even though they weren’t planning on attending public schools in the first place and would not have cost us a dime of tax money. Each year, another grade is eligible until ALL private school students are eligible for vouchers after thirteen years. There are currently 16,000 Utah students in private schools. There will be an estimated 20,000 private school students in 2020 and the impartial fiscal analysis, which the state legislators saw before voting on the bill, estimates that the vast majority of voucher users will be from these families that were already planning on attending private school. These predominantly upper-class families will receive publicly-funded vouchers to make a choice they had already made, costing the state between $500 and $3000 dollars per child and saving nothing. Plus, the state’s estimate openly admits that most voucher users will come from rich families already capable of paying the expensive tuition—not regular kids able to switch because of the extra money.

Remember, for every $3,000 tax dollars spent in a public school—a teacher…a computer lab…an extra-curricular program…we help hundreds of kids who use those resources. On the other hand, every $3,000 tax dollars that an individual uses on vouchers would be resources taken away from the public good to pay individual tuition at a for-profit institution.

Teachers are not a “special interest”

The coalition against vouchers is not composed of evil, liberal, union goons “trying to take away parents’ choice” like the commercials tell us. The majority of Utah families oppose vouchers and have in every poll for twenty years. The legislature listened to out-of-state voucher groups that donated large amounts of money, passed a law knowing Utah didn’t want it, and then tried to prevent the referendum through a lawsuit and advertising. Now the voucher groups are smearing teachers to excuse their attack on the schools. Think of the teachers or other school employees you know. They don’t act one way at home or on Sunday, and then covertly turn into liberal monsters at school. They’re your neighbors who want to prevent vouchers from damaging or destroying public education in our state. The union money sent to respond to the frequent TV commercials, radio ads, and slick color flyers of the pro-voucher advocates represents the donations of individual teachers all over the country, as opposed to huge individual donations made by billionaires interested in paying less taxes. (Google vouchers, Waltons, All Children Matter, and their funding to see for yourself.) And the union money has been openly donated, not anonymously using loopholes in state campaign laws. (Google Parents for Choice in Education, PAC, PIC, funding.) Check the Fact and Myth sections at the websites of both Utahns For Public Schools and Parents for Choice in Education. Then Google the sources of their research and see for yourself which information is more credible.

For more info and clickable links, see:

Vote no on vouchers, VOTE NO ON REFERENDUM 1 — 10-29-07