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Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Accountability? You Decide.

A careful look at the voucher bills themselves, focusing on fiscal and academic accountability.

Halloween Thanksgiving

It's Halloween. In fact, Halloween is almost over, and I'm already getting into a Thanksgiving sort of mood. First of all, I'm thankful that I don't pay dues to the UEA or the NEA, so none of my salary paid for the three anti-voucher mailers that arrived in my mailbox today, all from the same front organization, Utahns for Public Schools. They weren't the first mailers, and they won't be the last, and we've had some from the pro-voucher side, too. The pro-voucher side is well-funded, to be sure, but, if today's evidence means anything, the anti-voucher campaign isn't just well-funded. It is extravagantly funded. But not by me.

One of the three mailers focuses on the tired lie that vouchers will take tax dollars away from the public schools. I took up that topic recently here at the blog.

The other two rehash broader lists of familiar arguments, including the claim that private schools which accept vouchers are subject to "no accountability," in fiscal terms, academic performance, or teacher qualifications. These charges are our long-planned topic here tonight.

We will set aside our wonder at the implication that the public schools themselves are models of accountability and do something unusual, if not exactly original: We'll look at the bill itself, H.B. 148, and also some of the changes enacted by H.B. 174. The latter passed both houses of the Utah Legislature by such large margins that it is not subject to referendum petitions, unlike H.B. 148. It makes a few improvements on the earlier bill and will take effect automatically if the earlier bill survives referendum.

We're working with the "enrolled" versions of the bills -- the final, passed and signed versions. I will refer to line numbers in those versions, in case you want to read for yourself. In some cases, I have removed outline numbering or some punctuation, if it doesn't seem necessary in the excerpt I am quoting.

I will also quote some of the language from one of the flyers I received today, since it is handy and reasonably representative of opposition arguments over the last several months. You probably received it, too. It's the 22"x17" black-and-white one. It purports to be "A Voting Guide for Referendum 1." It urges us in outlandishly large print to "Check the Facts . . . Before You Vote."

"Check the facts." That's excellent counsel. Shall we proceed?

Introductory: Parents and "The Board"

Lines 49-51 in the introductory section read:

The Legislature finds that parents are presumed best informed to make decisions for their children, including the educational setting that will best serve their children's interests and educational needs.

The educational lobby (the unions and the bureaucracy) give lip-service to parents when they have to, but they do not agree with the Legislature on this point. If they did, they could not be so troubled that private school accountability tends to be directed largely at the parents, not mostly to the government.

The definitions section of the bill says something important for understanding much of the rest of bill's language: "'Board' means the State Board of Education." Note also that the bill calls vouchers "scholarships", and that "'parent' includes a legal guardian" (78).

Disclosure to Parents

Lines 112-25 of the bill include this language:

The scholarship application form shall contain the following statement:

I acknowledge that:

  • A private school may not provide the same level of services that are provided in a public school.
  • The private school in which I have chosen to enroll my child has disclosed to me the teaching credentials of the school's teachers and the school's accreditation status.
  • I will assume full financial responsibility for the education of my scholarship student if I accept this scholarship. . . .

Upon acceptance of the scholarship, the parent assumes full financial responsibility for the education of the scholarship student for the period in which the student receives the scholarship.

This is beginning to sound like accountability, isn't it? But we have only begun.

Miscellaneous School Requirements

Not just any private school is eligible to receive vouchers -- the wording is "scholarship students" -- under H.B. 148. Lines 133-99 of the original bill list requirements imposed on the schools. These are modified slightly by lines 96-97 and 105-6 of H.B. 174, as we shall see below.

To be eligible, schools must "have a physical location in Utah where the scholarship students attend classes and have direct contact with the school's teachers" (134-35). They must also "meet state and local health and safety codes" (140). Opponents are not quibbling much about these two points.

To qualify, a private school must have 40 or more students (184), may not operate in a residence (185), may not be a state-licensed residential treatment facility (186), and -- H.B. 174 added this one -- may not encourage illegal conduct (138 of H.B. 174). Much of the anti-voucher discussion I have heard seems ignorant of the first two of these points, at least.

Anti-Discrimination Provisions

Today's flyer says that Utah voucher schools "may discriminate against children based on religion, ability to pay or disabilities." This isn't exactly a lie; it is carefully-crafted truth intended to deceive.

The law says that eligible schools must "comply with the antidiscrimination provisions of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000d" (139). That section of the US Code is Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of "race, color, or national origin."

Thus H.B. 148 does not prohibit discrimination based on religion. This actually makes sense, because many private schools are religious schools. First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and the freedom to assemble seem to trump any notion that religious schools should be required to accept students of other faiths.

Nor does H.B. 148 prohibit discrimination based on ability to pay. These private schools are businesses; if you want their product or service, you have to pay for it. Try the "discrimination on the basis of ability to pay" argument at Wal-Mart sometime. Let me know when you're doing it, and I'll be happy to write to you while you're in jail for shoplifting.

H.B. 148 does not require every private school to accommodate every disability that the public schools accommodate. If you think it should, I guess that's okay. But I think it would be unreasonable. It makes sense to allow a private school to turn away students with disabilities the school is not equipped to accommodate. In any case, there is some language in the bill about disabilities; it pertains to full, advance disclosure. The eligible private school must "disclose to the parent of each prospective student, before the student is enrolled, the special education services that will be provided to the student, if any, including the cost of those services" (141-43).

As I said, this anti-voucher argument is true on its face, but its intent is deceptive. Its usefulness is in allowing opponents to accuse the voucher bill of discriminating. This will fool some of the voters, the unreflective ones who think all discrimination is bad. A vote is a vote. But not all discrimation is bad. What if a kindergarten couldn't discriminate against a 43-year-old convicted child molester who wanted to be a student there? What if a wife were not allowed to discriminate between her husband's sexual advances and those of every other human male in town? What if businesses couldn't discriminate against people who try to take things without paying for them, or who use expensive parking space for purposes unrelated to the business? To be sure, some discrimination is very bad indeed, even evil. But some other kinds of discrimination are just common sense.

Fiscal Accountability

The current mailer asserts that voucher schools have "minimal accountability for public funds received." See if you think this is "minimal."

Private schools who accept voucher students are required to "contract with an independent certified public accountant to perform [procedures specified in the statute] and produce a report of the results which shall be submitted to the board" -- that's the State Board of Education, as noted above -- "at the times specified . . ." (136-38). Those procedures are directed at making sure schools have adequate working capital, that scholarship payments are properly accounted for and reconciled to student records, and that "expenditure of scholarship funds have [sic] been made for education expenses and is consistent with other tuition expenditures" (161-75). This report must be submitted to the board when the school applies to receive voucher students, and every four years thereafter (176-79).

Note that parents' reports of their income, which determines voucher size, must be documented (239). Further, the board is to cross-check enrollment lists, public school lists, and information on youth in custody "to ensure that scholarship payments are not erroneously made" (283-85). Voucher payments are to be mailed to the schools, but made payable to the parents, who "restrictively endorse the warrant to the private school for deposit into the account of the private school" (286-89) -- another safeguard against fraud.

If the board -- again, that's the State School Board -- finds that these or other requirements are violated, it can deny a private school permission to enroll voucher students, interrupt or withhold payments, or even "issue an order for repayment of scholarship payments fraudulently obtained" (338-41).

I doubt that these are the precise measures required of public schools; nor should they be. Private businesses and government institutions would seem by their different natures to require different accounting methods. In any case, these requirements do not strike me as "minimal." On the contrary, they seem responsible and thorough.

Academic Accountability: Student Assessment

H.B. 146 requires that private schools "annually assess the achievement [H.B. 174, line 97, amends this to "academic achievement"] of each student by administering 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" -- a national standardized test. It permits an "alternative assessment" if the student "has a disability or limited English proficiency" and would be exempt from the standardized test if enrolled in a public school. The student's results must be reported to the parents. Moreover, upon request, the parents must be given test results for the school's other students, presented, of course, in such a way that other students' privacy is protected (144-53).

The opponents call this "no requirements for performance standards." Perhaps they have not read the bill.

Academic Accountability: Accreditation and Teacher Qualifications

According to opponents, the law imposes on private schools who accept vouchers "no requirement of a college education, teaching license or high qualifications" in hiring teachers. One tires of saying this, but they got this one wrong, too.

In truth, H.B. 148 requires these schools to "employ or contract with teachers who hold baccalaureate or higher degrees or have special skills, knowledge, or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in the subjects taught." And the schools must "provide to parents the teaching credentials of the school's teachers" (154-58).

Today's flyer -- the largest of the three, that is -- says these schools "may hire teachers with criminal records." H.B. 148 actually didn't exclude that possibility, but if it takes effect, so -- automatically -- will H.B. 174, which requires the hiring of teachers "who have completed a criminal background check that complies with [state law]" (105-6). So the opponents are wrong again -- either mistaken or lying, take your pick.

When the opponents claim there are "no requirements for accreditation," they are telling the truth for once (maybe twice). Strictly speaking, there are no accreditation requirements -- except that the schools are required to "provide upon request to any person a statement indicating which, if any, organizations have accredited the private school" (159-60). This is enough, if you trust parents to be accountable for their children's education, which this bill explicitly does (see lines 49-51 quoted above), and which the public education lobby obviously does not.

Final Thoughts

If the public education lobby were really so concerned about accountability for results and for the use of public funds, they wouldn't fight accountability tooth and nail in the public schools. They wouldn't resist bitterly the Utah Legislature's periodic efforts to impose some accountability on them -- in fact, the Legislature wouldn't need to try. And, despite decades of conditioning to believe that vouchers are evil, they might feel some sense of accountability for the truth and falsehood of their own arguments.

Most political debates are not this way; I am not accustomed to seeing one side so fixated on arguments which are so easily and conclusively refuted. I suppose a lot of voucher opponents simply believe what they've been told. But some of them have to have read the bills. They have to know that a massive campaign to persuade 50.1 percent of voters to believe things which are provably false is a fantastically cynical and destructive effort. I wonder, how much do they worry that all this will become transparent to most voters over the course of a nine-month pre-election debate?

The bottom line here is that the accountability-based anti-voucher arguments are a smoke screen. The real issue here is a desperate defense of union and bureaucratic power. That doesn't sell very well on its own anywhere, these days. So maybe flimsy half-truths and outright falsehoods are the best they have to offer.

Or maybe not. I'm still trying to give opponents the benefit of the doubt. I keep thinking there must be truth-based arguments for opposing Referendum One, and that they're just not finding or making them. I still hope to offer before the election a blog post entitled something like this: "Good Anti-Voucher Arguments Nobody Is Using." It's a serious intellectual challenge, and I enjoy that sort of thing even when it is opposed to my own views. (Is that why some people used to say I should be a lawyer?)

We'll see. Meanwhile, brace yourself for a few more days of bad arguments in the mail, on radio and television, and elsewhere.

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