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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Politics and Punch III: Vouchers and Other School Issues

Most of this post is devoted to gaping holes in school district officials' anti-voucher arguments, but there are a few other topics, too.

This is my third and final post about tonight's "Punch and Politics" event tonight in American Fork. The first and briefest post set the stage in a variety of ways. The second treated American Fork City Council candidates and issues. This third post offers some notes on educational issues, mostly school vouchers.

Disclaimer and/or Manifesto

I have recently maintained, here at the blog and elsewhere, that school vouchers are good for students, parents, teachers, public schools -- everyone, really, except the teachers' unions (think NEA, mostly) and the massive federal and state educational bureaucracies. I further insist that the root cause of the education lobby's violent opposition is not concern for the welfare and education of children, or of the consequent welfare of families and society at large. Nor, indeed, is this fundamentally about money. It's about power, pure and simple. I do not claim that every voucher opponent is so motivated; like most advocates, most opponents are probably convinced that their position is in the interest of children, parents, teachers, and schools. But the monster at the heart of the movement is the jealous guarding of near-monopolistic power enforced by the state.

There is a sign in my front yard urging everyone who passes by to vote Yes on Citizen's State Referendum Number 1, upholding the Utah Legislature's passage and Governor Huntsman's signing of a bill instituting a fairly substantial voucher program, which will offer "scholarships" to help defray the costs of putting one's children in private school.

I offer that little discourse so that you will appreciate, even if you are new to my blog, that I was by no means a neutral observer of tonight's voucher debate. I never intended to be, and I will not now pretend to have been so.

In any case, I myself am the product of 13 years in public schools, and I have three children attending Alpine School District schools, which have for the most part served us well.

Not a Bad Discussion

Tonight's discussion was somewhat satisfying, in the sense that it was more detailed and intelligent than most recent discussion I have heard on the subject. Pro-voucher ads are beating unpleasantly on the ACLU-Pelosi-Kennedy-Hillary drum, and anti-voucher advocates are panicking school faculties and PTAs, as usual, and running push polls which use irrelevant and misleading facts to try to soften support and strengthen opposition among voters. Piles of out-of-state money are coming in on both sides. None of this is surprising.

That said, shall we turn to some highlights? (I will need to offer a more systematic, personal explanation another time.)

Mark Cluff identified himself as one of a small minority of voucher proponents on the State Board of Education. (Four of 15, I think he said. I'm pleased that there are any, really.) He made a nice speech in favor of them, using mostly stock arguments. At the end of his comments, I decided to do what the PTA types were doing at the end of every speech opposing vouchers: start the applause. This earned me a glare from at least one PTA official.

State Representative Ken Sumsion said vouchers were something he campaigned on, and said nice things about freedom.

State Representative John Dougall said vouchers were principally about two things: choice on one hand, and softening the impact of rapid growth on the public schools, on the other hand. As usual, he was articulate and well-informed, as befits one of the prime movers of the voucher legislation.

How's That Again, Mr. Smith?

Alpine School District Assistant Superintendent Rob Smith gave us one of the two most noteworthy moments in tonight's voucher discussion. I held my peace with some difficulty. Speaking after Rep. Dougall's discussion of choice, Smith said that nothing in the bill (H.B. 148) does anything to expand parental choice.

Mr. Smith, do you mind if I frame a question for you directly?

As I understand the situation, public education in Utah is funded mostly by state income tax and local property taxes. If I refuse to pay these taxes, on the grounds that I'm sending my children to private school at my expense, and shouldn't have to pay to send them to public schools they do not attend, I go to jail and lose my property. In other words, the government forces me, essentially at gunpoint, to pay for my children's public school education. Of course, I am free to send them to private schools at my own expense, assuming I have the money to pay for it. But I still have to pay for the public schools. (To be sure, our tax structure and my income is such that my taxes don't pay the entire cost of my own children's public-school education. Others' taxes help, too -- but this is not relevant to my theoretical point.)

Let us suppose -- correctly -- that I don't have the money to pay for both public and private schools for my children. Therefore, I cannot choose to send them to private school. Vouchers might not pay the entire cost of private school, but they might pay enough to give me an actual choice.

So, Mr. Smith, how can you say that vouchers would have no impact on my ability to choose my children's schools? What you say would only be true if I have considerably more money than I have. In fact, I know a lot of parents with a lot less money than I have, who are nonetheless very concerned about and very involved in their children's education. In more than a few cases, the public schools are inadequate to meet their children's needs. Some manage to get their children into charter schools, but the rest have to hope they can find a better public school somewhere within twice-daily commuting distance. Do you still maintain that vouchers will have no effect on choice?

She Checked Her Facts at the Door

Alpine School Board member Chrissy Hanneman and Rep. John Dougall combined to produce one of the discussion's better moments. Hanneman went on at some length to the effect that state education funding is essentially based on head count, and that, contrary to voucher proponents' claims, there just isn't anything in the voucher bill that would let public schools keep some of the money allotted for students who leave to use vouchers at private schools. When she said this, Rep. Dougall leaned toward his microphone, then waited patiently. When it was his turn to respond, he gave her the line numbers in the bill which contain the language she said wasn't there. Uh, oops.

In fact, he explained, the public schools will be allowed to keep counting, for funding purposes, the students who leave with vouchers. The key phrase here seems to be "mitigation funds."

At another point in the discussion, Hanneman said that 97 percent of Utah students attend public schools; Mark Cluff confirmed that the national average is about 90 percent. If so many people are satisfied -- if the public schools are meeting the needs of 97 percent of all students -- who needs to mess with vouchers? (I'm paraphrasing.) Note the unspoken, devastating assumptions here: All 97 percent had a choice -- as in a viable alternative -- and still chose public schools. And the public schools are meeting the needs of every child currently attending.

If her own reasoning were true, it would actually deflate opposition to vouchers. If 97 percent of students (or their parents) freely choose public schools over private schools already, and are having their educational needs met in those public schools, then what are the public schools afraid of? If things are so rosy, they hardly need fear a mass flight to private schools, even if vouchers would pay part of the cost for some students.

Other School-Related Matters

Shelley Elementary Principal Cindy Davis was in the audience. She took a few moments to praise recent cooperation between her school and American Fork City on the matter of sidewalks and the larger issue of safe routes to school. She noted that Shelley Elementary has recently received a $150,000 grant for neighborhood sidewalks. The City has allocated $100,000, too; MFCC discussed some of this in a January blog post. A quarter-million dollars doesn't buy as much sidewalk as you might think; in some cases I believe some engineering and some property acquisition are required. But the money is still significant. Davis was very complimentary of the level of communication and cooperation among the various officials involved and other members of her school community. 

Davis also mentioned some of the funding challenges at the school level, stemming from unpredictably shifting enrollments between conventional public schools and charter schools. There was some discussion among the panelists as to possible remedies. I do not doubt the challenges are real; I suspect they will probably increase, too, in coming years, until a generally satisfactory equilibrium (whatever it might be) is finally reached among schools.

There was brief discussion of the need for sidewalks in some other areas, including where the City owns a property or two with no sidewalks. Traffic calming in school zones also came up. City Council Candidate Jason Porter noted that in Tempe, Arizona, where he lived, the speed limit in school zones is 15 mph, and going 16 mph gets you a $250 ticket. In American Fork, it is well known that driving one mile over the school zone speed limit puts lots of impatient drivers in your rear-view mirror. I'm not certain Porter meant to advocate either lower speed limits or exhorbitant fines; perhaps he was just suggesting more aggressive enforcement. (I didn't think to ask him later.)

There was some discussion of rapid growth in student populations in Utah, especially in Utah County. As I recall, among the panelists only the state legislators present seemed willing to believe that vouchers will help meet the challenges of growth, in the sense that they will reduce the rate at which the public schools need to build new schools and expand existing ones, because some students will go to private schools. It makes sense to me.

There was no discussion of splitting school districts. I suppose this is not surprising, because if there were a split locally, American Fork would almost certainly remain in the trimmer Alpine School District, while such cities and Orem and Lehi might leave to form their own.

Final Thought

MFCC quoted David Church, legal eagle for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, who was speaking to local elected officials when he said, essentially, "Just remember that you are now the government the Bill of Rights was intended to protect people from."

Let's do this again sometime, shall we?

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