Misplaced comments on vouchers

November 11, 2007

Crooks and Liars highlighted the sore-loser comments of the pro-voucher 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 like a blanket, but somehow they got sidetracked to Crooks and Liars. The comments are sometimes enlightening.

Eh. We probably ought to be reading C&L more anyway.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Notes from Evil Bender.

Utah voters spike vampire school vouchers

November 7, 2007

Vouchers are dead in Utah, for the moment.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports “Vouchers go down in flames“:

Voters decisively rejected the will of the Utah Legislature and governor Tuesday, rejecting what would have been the nation’s most comprehensive education voucher program in a referendum blowout.

“Tonight, with the eyes of the nation upon us, Utah has rejected this flawed voucher law,” said state School Board Chairman Kim Burningham. “We believe this sends a clear message. It sends a message that Utahns believe in, and support, public schools.”

More than 60 percent of voters were rejecting vouchers, with about 95 percent of the precincts reporting, according to unofficial results. The referendum failed in every county, including the conservative bastion of Utah County.

In the face of colossal failure, voucher supporters desperately searched for a scapegoat on which to hang it — anything other than the manifold problems of vouchers:

Voucher supporter Overstock.com chief executive Patrick Byrne – who bankrolled the voucher effort – called the referendum a “statewide IQ test” that Utahns failed.

“They don’t care enough about their kids. They care an awful lot about this system, this bureaucracy, but they don’t care enough about their kids to think outside the box,” Byrne said.

Funny, from my conversations with people in Utah, I got the idea they opposed vouchers specifically because the voucher plan would damage schools, and that would in turn hurt the kids.

I suppose it depends on what the definition of “care about kids” is.

Utah, the most conservative state in the nation, has strong teacher organizations, but nothing like a union that leads strikes and is not itself populated with conservative Republicans. Also favorable to vouchers, the Utah legislature is heavily Republican, with voucher supporters in most leadership positions. Millionaire Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., also pushed for the vouchers, stacking the state’s political powers in favor of vouchers. Such facts cannot get in the way of the desperation to deny them voucher supporters show.

Doug Holmes, a key voucher advocate and contributor, said, “We started hugely in the hole and it’s always been the case. The unions have done this in four different states, where they take the strategy of confusion to the people.”

But Holmes said, “You don’t run away from something because the odds are stacked against you.”

Odds stacked against vouchers? It’s not the voters who are confused, Mr. Holmes.

Voucher supporters blame even their friends and supporters, and offer headline writers the chance to use an avalanche of clichés with a promise that vouchers will rise again, perhaps in the old Confederacy:

Both sides, at one point, embraced the governor, who Byrne blasted Tuesday for his lukewarm backing.

“When he asked for my support [for governor] he told me he is going to be the voucher governor. Not only was it his No. 1 priority, it was what he was going to be all about,” Byrne said. “He did, I think, a very tepid job, and then when the polls came out on the referendum, he was pretty much missing in action.”

Byrne said the referendum defeat may have killed vouchers in Utah, but “There are other freedom oriented groups in other states – African-Americans in South Carolina are interested in it.”

Got that, South Carolina? Vampire vouchers are headed your way. Stock up on garlic, wooden stakes and silver bullets.

Oh, and don’t forget the Oreo cookies. Get lots of milk, too.

The whole world should be watching Utah

November 6, 2007

This is election day in much of the U.S. In Utah, voters have a referendum on vouchers to take money from public schools to give to students to attend private schools. This is the first state-wide test of vouchers anywhere.

William Hogarth's election series,

  • The Polling, from William Hogarth’s series, The Election, oil on canvas, 1754; from The Tate Gallery, on loan from Sir John Sloane’s Museum, London.

I think vouchers will be voted down, but either way, I wish there were more, serious national coverage of the story in Utah. Public education has refused to back down from scurrilous and often false claims against the schools, and parents and educators have fought a gallant, fact-filled campaign against Utah’s voucher proposal. Utah voters are traditionally among the better-educated, better-informed, and better-voting people. Known as a conservative stronghold, Utah will probably vote to put this voucher program in the trash can.

The rest of the nation could benefit from knowing more about the reasons this proposal fails, if it does — or why it succeeds, if lightning strikes the way Richard Eyre prays it will.

Marchers protesting the Vietnam War in 1968 used to chant “The whole world is watching.” If only it were true today.

Vote today!

Whatever your views, go to the polls if there is an election in your town, and vote. Your vote will count, and it angers and frustrates the big money interests who hope you won’t vote, so their campaign contributions and, perhaps, outright bribes, will have more clout. Go vote.

The County Election, George Caleb Bingham, 1851

Concise case against Utah voucher proposal

October 31, 2007

This site has about the most nearly complete, concise case against the Utah school voucher proposal I have found. Is there any chance the voters in Utah still need to be swayed to reason on this issue? Send them to this site, after you have them view the real story about Oreos.

Utah voucher referendum: Slapping the hand in the cookie jar

October 30, 2007

A Utah school teacher made his own video, in his home it appears, with a non-professional camera and crew — and it eviscerates the points Richard Eyre was trying to make in his slick, professionally-produced, commercial version.

The Truth about Cookies Utah Vouchers:

Tip of the old scrub brush to a reader and commenter named Brack.

Update, November  7, 2007:

Utah voters soundly rejected vouchers in the election November 6.  Here’s my version of the story.

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 »

Vouchers as Oreos: Crumbs for the kids

October 21, 2007

Here’s the infamous “Oreo® cookie” ad by the pro-voucher Richard and Linda Eyre, in the 30-second version:

I have a few questions for the Eyres and their Modified Vampire Voucher program:

1. Private schools are few and far between in Utah — where is a kid supposed to find a school?

2. National statistics tracked by the Department of Education show Utah at the bottom of the per-student spending list. Were Utah spending $7,500/year/student, Utah would rank comfortably near the top. Where did you get your figures for spending in Utah, and why do they differ from the national statistics?

3. Are you saying that, if vouchers cut student loads at public schools, no teachers or classrooms would be cut? I don’t see that guarantee in the law, and I’m wondering why you’re claiming something like that will occur.

4. How many kids need to leave the average public school classroom before there is a significant increase in money left over for the rest of the kids, under your formula? By “significant,” I mean at least 10% increases, or with your statistics, $750/pupil. My quick, in-my-head calculations show that, if only rich kids leave, we need to get 5 rich students , with the lowest vouchers, out of that 30-student class in order to get a significant increase in spending. That’s 17% of the students.

If 17% of the students left Utah’s public schools, how much would your program cost? How many private schools would need to be created to accommodate that percentage?

5. You say Utah spends about $7,000/student, and you suggest that Utah should be spending nearly $10,000/student. In order to get a $3,000/student increase in that classroom, you’d need to get 10 rich students to leave, or 33%. How soon do you think you can get a third of the students to leave Utah’s public schools?

6. You say teachers should lose their jobs if students leave public schools for private schools. Why? Studies show that generally it is the best students who leave public schools for private schools. If their teachers are punished . . . well, explain just what it is you really advocate?

7. When I published the research studies at the U.S. Department of Education, we published studies showing that reduction in classroom size helped student achievement — a measurable amount once classroom size got down to 18 students, and significantly once classroom size got down to 15 students per class. By your figures, we’d need to get half of all students to leave Utah’s public schools to get down to 15 kids per class — without firing any of the bad teachers. How long will it take to get that reduction? How much will it cost?

8. If we can’t get a third of all students to leave the public schools, we’re still stuck with a massive shortfall in funding. What’s your backup plan, since getting a third of all students to leave is a stupid idea with zero chance of success? When you’re done hammering at the foundations of public education, what then?

9. Do the good people at Nabisco approve of your abuse of their cookies?

Eyre’s program may look neat as Oreos, but it leaves only crumbs for the kids. Taking money out for vouchers does almost nothing to contribute to solutions for Utah’s education problems.

Below the fold: The longer version of the ad.

Read the rest of this entry »

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