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

October 22, 2007

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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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