Monday, October 29, 2007

Vouchers! Vouchers! (a guest blogger)

For those of you who don't live in/vote in/have interest in what happens in/ Utah, you might want to skip this post.

For the rest of you, perhaps a bit of explanation:

Last winter, the Utah State Legislature passed a school voucher bill, which the governor signed into law. Before it went into effect however, hundreds of citizens collected thousands of signatures protesting the law, and so on November 6, Utah citizens will be voting on whether or not to make the bill part of Utah law.

(That's my understanding of what happened anyway. I freely admit that I am FAR from an expert in this matter though. )

So, anyway, my mother (who is more of an expert on all of this) has been following the voucher situation quite religiously, and last week she sent the following e-mail out to a bunch of people, including me. I am completely biased about anything that has to do with my mom, of course. That being said, her letter explained a few things that had been confusing to me, and I found it helpful enough that I asked her permission to post it here.

So, if you are uncertain about where you stand on the whole voucher thing (as I am at times), there is some good information here. If you aren't uncertain at all, and are against vouchers in Utah, then there is some good information here to back you up. If you aren't uncertain at all, and are absolutely in favor of vouchers and nothing will ever change your mind, then there's really no point in reading beyond this--unless you happen be be a "Charlotte Fan", in which case, you can skip to the last paragraph where my mom talks about volunteering in her daughters 1st grade class. Why is that so important?

Well, who do you think the daughter in question is?

And with that lengthy explanation, here is a somewhat lengthy letter, written by my dearest mother, Barbara Corry.

Dear Family and Friends,

Some of you know that I have been involved in public school and politics for many years. I have been serving on my local school board for over 16 years and before that I was involved at the State level with Utah PTA. I have been on Capitol Hill for the legislative session yearly and worked with and discussed legislation with our Senators and Representatives many times.

I feel a need to express my opinion on the voucher issue and ask that you not be swayed by high power endorsements or “cookie” math, but honestly study the questions raised by this voucher bill.

House Bill 148 (the voucher bill) sets only 4 requirements for a school to qualify for voucher money: enroll 40 or more students, operate outside a residence, not encourage illegal activity and not be a residential treatment facility licensed by the state. There is no mention of number of school days required, acceptance of students with disabilities or special needs, subject matter taught or tested, or accreditation to ensure that the credits-diploma earned will be accepted by colleges, other schools and the military.

Public schools are held to a high standard in each of these areas as well as accountability for tax dollars. School Districts hold budget hearings every year as well as truth in taxation hearings when the District’s mill levy floats below the level the Legislature requires for participation in several of their education funding programs.

Voucher schools would be required to file a limited financial report every 4 years.

There are no minimum educational standards for teachers or administration in private voucher schools. You won’t know if the teacher teaching your child even has a college degree.

Private voucher schools will have to administer one standardized test of their own choosing and make those results available to the parents. Public schools are required to test all basic subject areas and make public their test scores for scrutiny and comparison with the state and nation.

HB 174 allows excess money from the weighted pupil unit (WPU) (each student is allotted so much money in figuring out how much money schools and districts receive) to return to the district when a voucher student leaves. This has been one of the strongest selling points of the pro voucher group. Presently, there is NO mechanism that allows money to be in a district without an actual body present. When asked repeatedly about this concern, legislators say airily, “they will take care of it”. It is presently against state law.

Districts receive funding based on their October head count. If a student returns to a school district or enters a school district after that date, districts do not receive any funding for that year for that individual. Studies have shown that 20% -25% of voucher students return to their resident school mid year.

The non existent tracking system will not even attempt to track students who enroll in voucher schools out of your district, so even if there truly was a way to recoup some of the money for the next 5 years, it would only apply to students living in your district attending a voucher school in your district boundaries.

According to the voter information pamphlet the cost of vouchers will outstrip even these possible financial benefits in the second year of implementation.

Voucher proponents continually quote $7500 as the amount of money Utah spends per student. This is NOT an accurate figure. It is an inflated estimate made by voucher supporters on what Utah MAY (but never has) spend. The US Census Bureau figure for 2004 is $5,008. The National Center for Education Statistics for 2003 is $6,114. The Utah Foundation Research Reports states that funding for 2005 was $5,257. Whatever figure is used, Utah’s per pupil expenditure is the lowest in the nation- 51st.

I have read numerous articles concerning voucher programs implemented throughout the United States and the world. As with any education program that changes the way of doing things there is generally initial success. This is true even in the public schools when a new principal, a new teacher with exciting ideas or even a new math program is initiated. For states and districts who have had vouchers for 5 years or more, the results are disappointing. Voucher schools, private schools and charter schools do not show an increased level of scholarship over public schools. There are no significant differences between these schools and public schools in terms of academic achievement. One article I recently read pointed out that private schools offer significantly less AP and concurrent enrollment opportunities than the public schools. Utah public schools lead the nation in the number of AP classes offered and credits earned.

Funding is of major concern. In Florida vouchers cost $107 million in 2005-06. In Milwaukee it is estimated in 2007 that vouchers for 17,000 students will cost $110,517,000. As the program costs have increased, money has been diverted from public schools to private schools. The school district has raised property taxes to offset the loss of funds. These two programs are strictly limited to either special needs students or those meeting financial guidelines. Utah’s voucher program is open ended, available to each and every one who applies. Milwaukee is currently looking for a legal way to eliminate the voucher program mainly because of the financial burden it is imposing.

Finally, philosophically, I have strong feelings about the value of public education. Schools are the final, last and only place where whole community values are taught, discussed and lived. As our society was become more and more fragmented, our communities lose their sense of who we are and what our values and expectations are. Schools have historically provided a gathering place, a safe arena for students and parents, and a place where you learn about others, both in formal education and informal playground, lunchroom, athletic activities.

Douglas D. Alder stated: “Students in public schools learn about democracy by living it. They learn that everyone counts. They establish friendships throughout the whole social spectrum. The smartest students learn a lot from their average peers and vice versa. The academic achievement of students is very important but so is social learning. Segregating students, as vouchers would do, is not the way to teach them to participate in a democracy.”

I got involved in the schools by volunteering when my daughter was in 1st grade. My reason was selfish; I wanted to see that she was getting the education and care she needed to be successful. I have continued to be involved because I learned that the more I did for others, the more I did for my own children. We do not live in a vacuum. We need the support and strength of others. We need to work to keep public schools viable. They are successful, they are not failing, they are mainly staffed by caring individuals who study and learn how to make each child successful.

Please vote against referendum 1.

Very Sincerely,

Barbara Willis Corry

P.S. I have documentation for the numbers and studies sited in this letter. (If you're interested in this, shoot me an e-mail or leave a comment, and I'll get the documentation from my mom for you)

1 comment:

Scott Packer said...

Thanks, Barbara, for a stimulating analysis of this most important vote. I am so tired of the adds - on both sides - that distort the truth or don't tell the whole story. Besides that, I don't think I can dunk Oreo cookies any more. Just think what schools could do with all the money that has been spent on this action.

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