Tuesday, February 7, 2012

SB 151 Stephenson's "anti-voucher" voucher bill. Quick education funding points to consider while listening to committee.

UPDATE: Stephenson canceled the committee meeting this morning because he wanted to work on changes to the bill. He still threw out his claim this bill is not a voucher. See my budget explanation below to see what you think. Also stay tuned for when the bill comes back up for a committee hearing in the next week or so. Will it be scheduled on a Monday morning at 8:00 to make it harder for the public to attend?

SB 151, Student Opportunity Scholarships, by Howard Stephenson, will be debated in the Senate Education Committee today, Tuesday, Feb. 4,at 4:00 pm. Click on the legislature's website, scroll down to the Upcoming Events section, and you should be able to click on the Live Now option at 4:00 to listen live to the committee hearing. (The committees often start a few minutes late--keep refreshing the page if it's not up right at 4:00. If you can't find it, post a cry for help on Twitter with the hashtag #uted, and the State School Board's account, @UTPublicEd will usually reply with a direct link. I expect both the live committee room and the online following will be packed, so I have some worries about something going wrong with the feed, but the front page links have been working for me after a bad first week of the new website.)

This is a new voucher bill "limited" to only some students. A lot of well-off families can get a $5500 school voucher if their kid scored below proficient on even one of four state tests, if their school has gotten an F grade for two years under Utah's new law (I had some info wrong about this provision in some tweets Saturday), or if a young student is behind in reading at all.

Some quick (for me) and important points to think about:

1. All voucher proposals are framed disingenuously by misrepresenting school funding. OK, this point ended up not quick. But it's the most important. I'll be posting further on this. I think many people could benefit from this hopefully easy-to-understand explanation of school funding. Consider forwarding this to others and asking questions about this to your legislators or in committee meetings.

Here is a very long and chewy document detailing the education funding for the state of Utah for last school year and the current school year. I'll refer to some specific pages shortly. The state spends most of our state income tax on K-12 public education. (A very significant portion of income tax funds is also spent on our higher ed. system) The legislature designates a "WPU" or Weighted Pupil Unit amount each year. The districts receive that amount of funding from state income taxes per student, with extra WPU's for special ed. students, administration, extra transportation money for small, rural schools, and some other programs. This is NOT some specific amount of money it takes to educate one child or a "marginal cost" per student coming and going from the school. It is a blunt, fair way to evenly distribute money to the state's districts on a per student basis. These distributed WPU's to each district are called "Above the line" funding and are summarized on page 8 of the document.

On pages 9 and 10 of the document, it summarizes further state income tax funds sent out as "below the line" funding for a variety of purposes such as transportation, ELL students, gifted students, students in custody, library books and equipment, school nurses, dual immersion language programs, classroom supplies, and the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts Program. Notice these are not sent out on a per student basis. They are lump sums. That nurse, art instructor, or amount of money for classroom supplies has to stretch to cover however many students show up. (Different programs are divided differently, some to pilot schools, some proportionally. And the legislature changes the total amount of "below the line" funding every year as they debate specific programs.)

Therefore, neither type of funding, "above the line" or "below the line," represents a marginal savings for an individual school. If a student switches to a private school, the state will still send the same amount of "below the line" funding that year to the districts. The state will keep one WPU (designated as $2816 this year) in the general education fund for that student. So the total savings for a student moving out or switching to a private school = Near $0 for a local school or district. One WPU of $2816 for the state education fund from income tax. If that student is a special education student, some complicated formula will save the state some more of that money. The local school wouldn't cut concrete costs much, but would save in faculty and staff time with the various meetings and paperwork. The vast majority of students who were Below Proficient on one test or attend what will be labeled as "F" schools are not special ed. and will only save one WPU.

This is because almost every cost at a school or district is a fixed cost. If one student enrolls or moves out of a school, the only cost difference for that school is some paper. The teachers, computers, library books, copy machines, training sessions, utilities, buses, bond payments, etc. do not change. When a school loses 30-40 students, depending on the district and whether it's an elementary or secondary school, they lose a teacher. 30 * $2,816 = $84,480. 40 * $2816 = $112,640. That more than covers the cost to pay that teacher and there is no net gain to the district from these changes.

Your child's district and school get funded from various other sources as well. Local district funds via property taxes are voted on and approved by the residents of that district in LUMP SUM amounts for school programs, including maintenance and upkeep. No local district funds are collected or spent on a per student basis.The funds serve hundreds of students simultaneously in large fixed costs. Your student does not receive a pro-rated portion of the janitor's time. See Heading II Local Revenue on pg. 11 of the funding document. The state also collects some property tax and distributes it in lump sums in that orange box about leeways. (This fact is also important in understanding the claims that districts are funding "phantom students" and should give up this locally collected money to charter schools with no publicly elected governing bodies.) Federal funds largely pay for lunches at all schools and for lots of extra help in Title I schools.

Therefore, representing a $5,500 voucher as a savings to schools is fundamentally dishonest. The schools and districts basically save nothing, and the state fund saves one WPU of less than $3,000 dollars. Via the tax-credit-converted-to-scholarship-in-order-to-claim-it's-not-a-voucher, the private school actually receives substantially more public money than a public school for enrolling the same student.

1B. Many articles comparing states will lump all of that income tax money together, above the line and below the line, the property tax whether voted on and collected by the state or district, and then divide that total by the number of students in the state. That gives a number of just under $5400 the state spends per student. That raw number is semi-useful for blunt comparisons with other states when comparing funding effort, but it doesn't represent a marginal cost for educating each individual student as I've shown. And it gets worse. Senator Stephenson and his lobbying organization, the Utah Taxpayer's Association, take that larger total and add the small amount of state income tax spent as capital funds to build new facilities, the huge construction bonds voted on by constituents of local districts specifically for building new schools (such as the $200 million dollar bond approved by Alpine District voters recently), and even sometimes count the federal funds specifically earmarked to meals and specific Title I schools, and count that as total funding as well because "it's all taxes." Dividing that larger total by the number of students gives them a per student funding number of $7,000 or $8,000 per student. They then claim this shows that a $5,500 voucher actually saves the state money.

Think about what they're doing. The argument boils down to claiming that if a student in St. George leave public school and takes a $5,500 voucher to attend private school, money is incrementally saved on WPU's statewide, construction of elementary schools in Eagle Mountain, and school lunches in Logan. It willfully misrepresents that number as actual savings to schools. In this case, the state saves one $2,816 WPU from the general education fund that they don't send to Washington School District for that student, while giving out a tax credit of $5,500 from that same fund. Stephenson will use this false representation of total taxes spent on schools today in committee. Listen and understand. Post questions here if you have any, and I will do my best to answer them within a day or two.

I think most members of the public have not researched the annoying intricacies of public education funding and are largely at the mercy of the claims of others about the impacts of vouchers and other funding proposals. So save that 99-page document and study up. I don't understand much of it still and probably flubbed a detail in my explanation, but my main point about the allocation of education funds is verifiably true.

I know Senator Stephenson and other members of the legislature understand very well the reality of how these funds are collected and distributed. I feel they purposely frame their arguments with misleading statistics in order to advance their ideological goals rather than help the public make informed decisions or represent their constituents. These misrepresentations of school districts wasting thousands of dollars per student are a large part of the lack of trust most educators feel toward the legislature as they struggle with 30+ students in their classrooms.

2. The program would allow up to $5,000,000 to be taken each year out of the general education fund via credits for donations to private school scholarship organizations.

3. Senator Stephenson admitted at the Utah Taxpayer's Association's pre-legislative conference (my notes: they're tough to read sometimes. Scroll down to Stephenson's comments about 2/3 of the way down) that most private schools will not accept a student who scores below grade level or is not proficient in English. He claims that the Catholic schools are eager to take these students. I would love to hear someone from that system confirm that sentiment. He also doesn't say how much capacity remains in those schools statewide. I think I'm right in saying there is a waiting list to enroll in both Judge Memorial and Juan Diego high schools. I am not familiar with the amount of Catholic elementary and middle schools in the state. Would a generous estimate be that 200-300 additional voucher students could enroll?

Stephenson says these vouchers would create a market for private schools focused on low-achieving students, so new quality schools would quickly spring up to better serve those students. (At $5500 a pop with no mandated programs, he's right that some schools would take that money.)

4. There will be a very large number of students who qualify for the voucher-- NOT just 2 or 3 difficult students from a class. Off the top of my head, I would estimate at least 100-200 students of the 1200 at my school received at least one state test score below proficient last year. (Schools with more affluent demographics will have fewer students, some Title I schools would have over 50% with at least one score below proficient.) Each of those students who take a voucher represent up to a $2,684 loss to education funding ($5,500 - $2,816 = $2,684.)

5. The school grading bill is brand new and based on those same test scores. Many Title I schools will get F's based on those standards. No fancy program will "solve" the difficulties of educating all struggling students. Senator Stephenson is on the record as wanting to "dismantle" and privatize those schools that the school grading program sets up for F's. This voucher bill would make 100% of the students at those schools eligible for vouchers, thus thousands of potential $2,684 losses. Stephenson is pursuing his stated goal through indirect means.

There's more to say, but it will have to wait.



opencontent said...

I really appreciate your analysis here. Thanks very much for digging into the detail on how funding moves about. This is as clear an explanation as I have seen.

I was surprised that, in a document of this detail, I couldn't find the amount of dollars set aside by the state for purchasing textbooks or other curriculum. If you know where that number is off the top of your head, could you please let me know where it is? david.wiley@gmail.com

UtahTeacher said...

Hello Professor Wiley,

Thank you for reading. I have been following your open textbook initiative over the last few weeks, and it looks wonderful.

Textbooks have to go through a loose vetting at the state level to be considered for primary use in a classroom, but the state doesn't purchase textbooks. That is done at the district and school level. That means you have to dig through the long budget documents at each individual district website, which are not always intuitive to find.

As for "other curriculum," I don't think many schools are paying money to curriculum writers. The core curriculum is designated at the state and the schools use textbooks and their own creative materials.

The Alpine District budget was linked from Departments -> Administration -> Transparency -> Budget. http://alpineschools.org/accounting/budget/2011-12-budget (This went to a Google Doc, but I had a much easier time reading after I clicked Download Original)

Those WPU's that come to the district are apportioned out as the funding for almost everything at the district level besides the buildings themselves. Personnel is by far the largest cost. At least for Alpine District, textbooks fall first under the category "Instruction," and then "Supplies" as the budget divisions narrow into categories. Page 13 of the budget, but 16 in my browser, shows a breakdown of "below the line" income from the state much more specific than I could find in the state document. There is a line item for "Supplemental Supplies/Textbooks" for almost half a million. Must fall under a broader category in the state summary. This may indicate you could dig in that document and find the total the state spent on this line item.

But Alpine ended up spending much more than that with the remainder coming from WPU's, so you would have to get totals district by district. See pg. 16 (19 in browser) to find that Alpine spent $2.37 million on textbooks this budget year. With the new core coming, especially the weird math classes, using a quality open textbook could grant some welcome budget relief.

Cameron said...

I've been meaning to get to this for some time. The above the line vs below the line funding differences reflect the tug of war over local control vs legislative control of how state education money is spent. I think Stephensen would have it all below the line if it were up to him. He displays quite a bit of distrust of local districts, which after a few experiences with my local school board part of me understands his distrust. That said, voucher and backpack funding ideas would be smoother if all the funding was above the line. I'd love to see that amendment made to Stephensen and Dougall's bills.

I do think you underestimate the impact voucher/backpack programs would have on total public ed funding though. The $200 million bond Alpine just passed was because of growth. That's an example you use of fixed cost that doesn't disappear when a child leaves the public system. However, over time those bonds would be smaller as growth is mitigated using these funding mechanisms.

UtahTeacher said...

Hi Cameron,

Glad you commented. It's good to get feedback from others with different experiences.

To your point—I think that districts or schools sometimes use the strange above the line/below the line methodology to their advantage as well. They can get certain things funded directly from state without getting blamed for how WPU money is divided later. Sumsion, I believe, proposed eliminating almost all below the line funding last year and putting it into WPU. I haven’t thought about it enough to figure out where I think the majority should go. I think any huge change like that without 3-4 yrs headstart to figure out new divisions and distributions only spreads confusion and hurts schools and kids. Running it as a bill or amendment taking effect in 6 months borders on hostile.

The Alpine School Board is an imperfect political body, and I have had issues with the board and/or district administration. I do believe them to be honest actors though. What employee, public or private, never disagrees with management? But I believe them near Saints compared to politicians using parliamentary tactics and bills with disguised aims to circumvent public opinion and damage the public ed. system which serves the vast majority of Utah’s kids. I obviously have my biggest problems with Stephenson who most regularly pulls abusive tricks and whose very presence in the legislature is unethical as a handsomely paid industry lobbyist who doesn’t even have to reveal his conflicts of interest.

I think you are overestimating the capital cost effects and underestimating the immediate operating cost effects. I talked about bond payments for new schools as fixed costs which all existing ones are, but I did not include them in my fixed cost numbers above. Those are strictly WPU figures or numbers including below the line costs and locally voted money. I know the costs personally--my school does not get or lose money as individual students move in and out through the year. The marginal financial costs are nil, though the effect on class size can be felt if enough leave/arrive in the same grade. I said that Utah Taxpayer’s dishonestly lumps the capital bonds in total student spending to inflate the cost and justify $5,000+ vouchers as “savings.” “Overall” school funding as calculated by UTA is irrelevant when discussing per student funding. Those district bond funds only apply to an individual district and can only be used for the very specific capital costs they were voted in for. They were never collected on a per student basis and cannot be shifted around on a per student basis within the district, let alone as part of students taking vouchers in other districts.

UtahTeacher said...

So some savings MAY be realized in particular districts each 5 yrs if we could bond for a little less spacious schools. Think about the continuing growth in Eagle Mountain and Saratoga… I know plenty of families and teachers from the area. Hundreds of local kids could use vouchers (though there would not be enough private school capacity for years except under incredibly optimistic projections) and new schools are still going to have to be built. The other fixed costs from above and below the line funding aren’t saved unless solid little chunks of 30-40 kids from the same school leave on vouchers. And if they’re not all the same grade, the school still “saves” by getting assigned one fewer teacher, while making it harder to prevent substantially different class sizes from grade to grade.

This while $2816 losses per voucher would happen that year and each year across potentially all districts, especially along the Wasatch Front and Washington County, taking millions from the available state education money while we hope for some future bond savings in individual districts.

And the tax break via credit—It’s dollar for dollar, so really the state funds the voucher program while Stephenson’s buddies get up to a $5,000,000 tax break distributed among a relatively small group of willing donors without having to acknowledge who is actually saving that money.