Lot of damage, not much benefit: The truth about Utah vouchers

Editorials in two of Utah’s second-tier daily newspapers spell out exactly why the Utah voucher proposal submitted to voters is a bad one. The Provo Daily Herald urges voters to study the voucher proposal, and then vote for it. The Logan Herald-Journal discusses a key problem for Cache Valley parents and educators, in aging buildings that are often older than the grandparents of the students, but which will cost a fortune to replace.

The Utah voucher plan is only half-vampire (blood sucking, that is; or money sucking), leaving with the public schools some of the money allocated for students who choose to leave — at least for five years. In that one regard, the Utah proposal stands a head above other voucher plans offered in the U.S.

That is not enough to make it a good proposal, however. Why?

Here are “givens” for this article, the basic set of facts we have to work from.

1. Crowding is a key problem for Utah schools. Statewide, public schools average 30 pupils per class. That’s above national norms, and twice the concentration of students that studies show make for the most effective classrooms (15 students). (A new study from the Utah Taxpayers Association, a usually credible source, shows Utah’s public school student population growing from today’s almost 550,000, to about 750,000 by 2022 — requiring more than $6 billion in new construction costs.)

2. Partly because of large families in Utah, per pupil spending ranks near the lowest in the U.S. The usual figure used in the voucher discussions in Utah is $7,500 per student per year, but I can find no source that corroborates that figure. The actual number is probably closer to $5,000 per student, but may be lower. Legislative analysts based their scrutiny of the proposal on the $7,500 figure, and for discussion purposes, that’s good enough. It won’t make any difference in the outcome. (A reader in comments on another post says the $7,500 figure comes from the Park City School District, the state’s richest — it may be high by as much as 40% for the state. Can that citation be accurate?)

3. Utah’s schools perform well above where they should be expected to perform, on the basis of number of teachers, teacher pay, and student populations. Despite crowding and shortage of money, three Utah middle schools were named among the nation’s 129 best last month. Utah students score respectably on nationally-normed tests. A high percentage of Utah students go to college. Utah parents deserve a great deal of the credit for this performance boost. Utah has for years had higher than average educational attainment. With several outstanding colleges and universities in a small state, many Utah parents have a degree or two, and they buy books, and that achievement and the drive to get education rub off on their children.

4. These problems should get worse without drastic action. Utah family size may decrease slightly, but immigration from other states adds to pupil population increases. Utah’s economy is not so outstanding that it can easily absorb significantly higher taxes to pay for schools. (See the Utah Taxpayers Association study, again.)

Those are the givens. Advocates of the voucher plan, notably people like Richard Eyre, who made a fortune investing in Kentucky Fried Chicken, and has since invested much of his time in dabblings in public policy, argue several benefits to the voucher plan:

A. Not much damage to public schools by taking money away. In fact, they argue, during the first five years, for each student who leaves a public school with a voucher, the school will keep at least $4,000 (this figure would apply only to the richest districts, if the baseline number comes from Park City as my commenter suggested). This $4,000 would be spread among the other 29 students remaining, effectively, leaving just under $140 additional money per student in the average classroom. (There are problems with this calculation, of course).

B. Public school classroom size will shrink, to the benefit of the remaining kids.

C. Public school spending can hold steady when schools fire the teachers who lose students (I assume this is a misstatement from the Eyres’ video — that instead, some savings might result from dismissal of low-performing teachers in schools where a significant portion of students leave).

D. Magically, competition will create better education.

Below the fold, I’ll tell you why the benefits will not obtain, and point out some of the dangers of pushing the whole education system over a cliff that are inherent in this scheme.

Elusive, illusory benefits

Benefits from vouchers, for the public and the taxpayer, accrue only after a significant portion of students transfer out of public schools, and then only if they do it in the next five years. That’s not going to happen. In the 30-second “Oreo” commercial, there is talk of two or three students transferring to private schools from one class. That’s only 10 percent of a 30-pupil class. Projections are that much less than 10% of students will move.

If we got a 10% transfer, the additional money available to the public school is too small to do much good — certainly it will never prevent a tax increase — and the class size reduction takes the class size from unmanageable to slightly less unmanageable. Education Department studies done in the 1980s showed achievement in classrooms increasing measurably only when class size got below 18 students per class, and significantly improving only when class size got belwo 15 students per class.

To get classroom size reductions enough to help out, then, we’d have to get half the students in public schools to move to private schools. An exodus of 275,000 students is simply not in the cards.

And if that many students tried to move, it would bust the bank for vouchers. But of course, there are not enough private schools in the state to accommodate even 27,000 new students, let alone ten times that many.

So benefits from vouchers only obtain with an impossibly large transfer of students out of the public schools, far more than budgeted for, far more than possible under any rational projection.

This referendum is a lot of clucking for so small an egg.

More likely, public schools along Utah’s Wasatch Front — and nowhere else in the state, because private schools are simply not available — will see less than a 1% transfer for vouchers. Poor students may try, but they will be unable to enroll in private schools without significant scholarships to make up the shortfall between the voucher and the actual tuition and fees, which are significantly more than vouchers in almost every case.

School crowding will continue to be a crisis, as will teacher recruitment and retention. But the public, tired of these fruitless shouting matches, will not stand for the tax increases necessary to raise teacher salaries and recruit more teachers.

Utah needs a massive school building program. (See the Logan Herald-Journal’s article below.) That will require massive bond issues, which must be approved by voters. Voters are unlikely to approve those bonds if they have been convinced that vouchers should reduce the need for those bonds. Vouchers cannot deliver. This is a set up to fail.

If the voucher program were successful to the maximum of the funding allocated by the legislature, it would reduce the need for new buildings by a minuscule amount.

Voucher advocates denigrate the great achievements of Utah’s teachers and parents, claiming that Utah’s schools are in trouble academically. Utah’s schools are doing well, far above what they should be doing with the money they have.

As a reward for this spectacular achievement in education, the voucher advocates propose to cut funding to the schools, and as the Eyres say, to fire some of the teachers. (Has Eyre ever managed a company? Does he have any idea what role good morale plays in successful organizations?)

Utah’s schools achieve well because of the motivation of parents and teachers, which carries over into the students. That motivation cannot be purchased at any price (see the research of the University of Utah’s Frederick Herzberg).

However, that motivation can be killed by financial slaps in the face, by demotivating people, by taking money from them and by denigrating their great achievements.

If you’re following my arguments, I don’t need to pitch you on the way to vote on the vouchers. The current program is too small to do any good, but enough of a thorn to destroy programs in schools across the state. It’s enough of a wild card to foul up planning for needed school expansion for the next two decades.

Utah’s schools need money. Teachers and parents, working together, can get a huge bang for the buck, larger than other states. But they can’t get any bang when the bucks are taken away.

The danger of these vouchers is not that they will work — the proposal is set up to fail both the kids who get vouchers and the kids who don’t. The danger is that voters will think the voucher program should produce some success, and that they will stop supporting the spending necessary to keep Utah’s schools as good as they are. That doesn’t get to the point that Utah’s schools need more money to get better. Running the Red Queen’s race will be crippling to Utah’s economy, running as fast as possible simply to stay in place.

If the vouchers work, Utah’s schools still need $6 billion more for bricks and mortar by 2022, and probably twice that amount for teachers, libraries, and classrooms in which children can learn.

Where is that money coming from? Cookie sales?


See articles below from the Provo and Logan newspapers.

In our view (Provo, Utah Daily Herald editorial, Monday, October 22, 2007)

Gov. Jon Huntsman has gently urged Utahns to find out more about Referendum 1. We think that if they do, they’ll vote for the voucher program, as the governor says he will.

Huntsman has long backed the idea. At a conference last month at Sundance, he told local business and civic leaders, “I’m going to vote for vouchers because I think that’s an important step in terms of having another piece of equipment in our arsenal that serves kids.”

On Wednesday, Huntsman appeared at a Capitol news conference with Republican leaders who support the program. He reaffirmed his support for the plan to share education money with Utah parents whose children would be better served in private school. On average the voucher would amount to less than half of what the state has already allocated for the education of each student.

Huntsman trusts the judgment — and the basic arithmetic skills — of voters. He believes, as we do, that when they study the program, they will come to understand that the choice is between innovative funding approaches, like vouchers, and certain tax increases that will be required to sustain Utah schools in the next decade if alternative funding of education cannot be achieved.

“That’s all I ask,” he said as he urged voters to educate themselves. “We have a very important vote Nov. 6. Come informed and then vote whatever you think is right.”

We agree with Huntsman’s recommendation and with his approach. Unfortunately, voucher opponents — including a major national labor union recently joined by Arizona’s largest teachers’ union — have fought with fear instead of facts. Television ads, funded with millions from organized labor, have sought to obfuscate more than enlighten.

A key point to keep in mind as you sort through the debate is that it’s not really about money. It can’t be. Vouchers cap the taxpayer contribution for a particular student at $3,000. Without the voucher, taxpayers would be on the hook for at least $5,000 to educate that same child.

The voucher cap leaves a surplus. Instead of giving all $5,000 away for a private school, the law directs that the difference ($2,000 in this example) must remain with the public schools. It is a windfall for the public school system. Most of Utah’s schools are overcrowded, so losing the cost of a student while keeping a significant chunk of tax dollars associated with that student can only be good.

Over 13 years, vouchers will cost a minuscule 4-tenths of 1 percent of state spending on K-12 education. It’s a compelling case: more resources per student to public schools; little cost to taxpayers; and greater freedom for parents to address the individual needs of their children. Vouchers increase total education spending in Utah because most parents who use them will have to dip into their own pockets to meet private school tuition.

Strangely, one important issue has hardly been discussed in all in the voucher debate, but it ought to be the centerpiece. It is the tidal wave of 150,000 new students that will hit Utah in the next few years. Vouchers alone will not solve the growth problem, but they will help. The alternative to creative solutions like vouchers is massive tax increases.

Some people say they object to giving state money to private entities like schools. But of course this is done all the time, and for good reasons. Government pays private parties all the time to achieve public purposes — pell grants for students, Medicare, mental health services, highway construction, support for parents via tax deductions for children. Ever taken out a mortgage on a home? The government subsidizes that when you deduct the mortgage interest on your tax returns. The paperwork is different, the impact is the same. The list goes on.

This one is simple: Who should have greatest power to direct a child’s life — a parent or a public school system? While it may take a village to raise a child, we believe most people support the basic stewardship of mother and father.

Keep these points in mind when you study this issue. We agree with Gov. Huntsman that you will arrive at the right answer. We think you will vote “yes” on Referendum 1.


Our aging schools


By Devin Felix

Published in the Logan, Utah, Herald-Journal:

Monday, October 22, 2007 1:23 AM CDT

Cache district officials must decide if it would be better to replace or repair oldest buildings

Hundreds of students in the Cache County School District attend school in buildings that have been around since the United States was struggling through the Great Depression and World War II was on the horizon.

As enrollment continues to grow rapidly, district officials have started to consider the fate of four of the district’s oldest buildings: Wellsville Elementary, Lewiston Elementary, the southeast wing of Millville Elementary and the district office building.

It would cost at least 60 percent as much to maintain and upgrade those four buildings for 10 years as it would to replace them entirely, said Asset Evolution’s Coray Christensen during a presentation to the Cache County school board Thursday. The cost over 15 years would be at least 66 percent of the cost of replacement, Christensen said.

The district hired Asset Evolution to study the buildings and project the costs of replacing or upgrading them, and Christensen presented the board with a report on the company’s findings.

“Whenever you’ve got a building that is costing more than 60 percent of replacement cost, it’s something you might want to look at,” Christensen said.

Older buildings cost more to maintain because they have had longer to deteriorate and because they need to be upgraded to meet modern requirements, Christensen said.

Buildings are now required to provide accessibility to handicapped people and meet tougher requirements for seismic stability. The four buildings were all built before those requirements were in place: Lewiston, the southeast wing of Millville and the district office building in 1939, and Wellsville in 1938. At least one of the buildings would need an elevator installed to satisfy requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and all would require some kind of seismic upgrade. Improvements to brickwork, carpet, tiles, plumbing, windows and numerous other areas would need upgrades in coming years, the report says.

Within a year, the board will create a building committee to address what should be done about the building situation in the district, said business administrator Dale Hansen. Several years ago, a building committee created a master plan for new buildings in the district through about 2020, Hansen said, but due to rapid growth and rising construction costs, a new committee is again necessary.

At the recommendation of the committee, the district sought a $60 million bond several years ago for new schools, Hansen said. Of that amount, about $13 million is left — enough for one elementary school.

“The committee planned for that money to go a lot farther than it did,” Hansen said.

The district increased by about 475 students this year, enough to fill an entire elementary school, said Superintendent Steve Norton. A new elementary school will open next fall in Mendon. District officials have not yet decided where they will build next.

2 Responses to Lot of damage, not much benefit: The truth about Utah vouchers

  1. […] bunch in Utah — and a bunch of people commented there. I’m sure they were planning to leave comments here, or at UtahAmicus, or Utah Teacher, or one of the other blogs that covered the issue […]


  2. […] Lot of damage, little benefit:  The truth about Utah vouchers […]


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