Sunday, April 29, 2007

Big Fat YES To Vouchers

I don't think I've made a big secret of my utter contempt for public school politics and the "one-size-fits-all," "us or them" attitude toward education in our society. My attitudes toward education tend toward the radical and reformist.

So, I think the idea of educational vouchers is a TEENSY, TINY and very rational step in the right direction toward improving the state of education in our country.

So, you can probably imagine my pulse rising and my cheeks turning a deep crimson when I heard about the recent efforts of an evil labor union (the UEA).

Let me catch you up.

The Utah State Legislature, a body elected by Utah citizens, recently passed a bill that would reimburse parents for a portion of the money they spend in private schools if they decide that a private education would better suit the needs of their children.

The UEA, through what I feel are deceptive and less-than-appropriate means (read: manipulation, lies, lies and propaganda), have gathered enough signatures to put the voucher law on the ballot. That is, it will go to a public vote. If the public votes "no," then there will be no educational vouchers in Utah.

But, to me, the whole point of a voucher law is that one parent can do something to help his or her one student get an appropriate education regardless of whether or not all the other parents think that public education is "good enough."

And you want to know something? The legislature was cool enough to make it so that the state will pay almost nothing extra to support the voucher program. And guess what's even better? A student who leaves the public school system can take only a maximum of 50% of their per-student funding with them in voucher spending. If that student belongs to a high-income family they will take even less.

I went to public elementary school, a pretty good one I think, and I believe I have a good grasp on basic arithmetic.

$6,000 per-student funding minus $3,000 maximum per-student voucher spending equals $3,000. Right?

And one minus one equals zero. I'm sure of that math. I can do it on my fingers.

So, $3,000 left-over and no student to spend it on means $3,000 EXTRA for the public school system.

Tell me, because I just can't get it. How is this bad for education?

Child gets the education he deserves. Parent gets help paying for that education. The public school system has one less student to educate and $3,000 more to help improve the education of other students. In the end, the state government pays less than half a percent more on education. Sounds like win, win, win all around.

But the bureaucrats at the UEA would have teachers and others believe that vouchers are a bad thing. This leaves me with only a few conclusions. Their math and logic skills are lacking. Or they haven't actually read the legislation. Or they don't thoroughly understand the idea. Or they are lying.

I've been wanting to write something about the specific merits and logic of educational vouchers (or really any experiment in improving the quality of education for individual children). But I am highly opinionated on the matter and (as you can see from the above) my ravings on the subject are far from impartial.

I'm afraid I couldn't do it justice.

So, this morning I read an editorial (it's a bit old) on the whole deal. I think it's spot on. And I think they've said it better (and much more rationally) than I could have.

So, I'll pull a Lavar Burton here and treat you to an editorial from the staff at the Daily Herald. You don't have to take my word for it.

Take it away, Daily Herald folks.

The moral case for vouchers

Daily Herald

Opponents of the recently passed school voucher system now say they've got enough signatures to place the measure on a ballot. A vote, they hope, will override the Legislature and kill vouchers in Utah.

Their overreaction is surprising. What are they afraid of? Why would a modest experiment in Utah education engender such weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth?

The answer is, sadly, an old one: Voucher opponents consist primarily of members of a major labor union (teachers) and a corps of professional school administrators, both with a vested interest in the outcome. They fear a loss of power.

This may not surprise anyone, but it's still wrong.

In truth, Utah's voucher experiment should be welcomed. It offers a practical answer to some entrenched problems in the public schools, and it doesn't cost any more than we're spending already. The ongoing dollar commitment for administration -- $100,000 per year -- is a drop in a massive bucket. Utah's commitment to education is about $3 billion a year.

And yet vouchers get violent opposition. The rhetoric includes a full dose of fear, hyperbole and skewed information. You would think vouchers were somehow hastening Armageddon.

They are not.

Opponents would have you believe that it is wrong for the state to pay to accomplish a valid public purpose -- universal education -- if is not accomplished in the particular way they want. They would have you believe that the public purpose is not to educate every child, but to educate every child exclusively in a public school system.

There is a big difference. And the latter distorts the argument.

Look at it this way: The state long ago endorsed universal education because an educated population is more productive. Education was deemed so important, in fact, that the state even made it compulsory by law. In making education compulsory, the state properly accepted the burden of paying for it -- today at a level roughly $5,000 to $7,500 per student per year.

That money is committed whether the public purpose is accomplished by public or private means. The only thing that should matter to taxpayers is that the purpose is accomplished.

Voucher opponents, though, would have you believe that the state has no obligation to fund anything but a public system. We disagree. There is no case, for example, that private schools have failed to accomplish the public purpose of educating students. If anything, they have proved themselves superior to the public system.

The whole issue turns on a single question:
Whose money is it? Or, put another way, do tax dollars properly adhere to the individual student for whom education is compulsory, or does it "belong" to the public school bureaucracy?

Fairness requires that government money follow a student to any institution that can deliver an education at least as good as what the state provides. The logic is simple: Education is a public purpose, and it is compulsory. The state is committed to a dollar value for every child of student age to accomplish that public purpose. If the public purpose that compels compliance can be accomplished through a legal alternative, then refusing to pay for that alternative is inherently unfair. It constitutes a form of theft.

In short, if the state pays for the education of one student, it must pay for all.

The public schools are supposed to provide for individual needs, which include things like substantial one-on-one attention from teachers. They are supposed to address varying levels of student aptitude. They are not supposed to become a melting pot in which "good enough is good enough," where everyone turns out to be the same gray shade of oatmeal.

While Utah's public schools deserve credit for the good work they do, it remains a painful truth that some of our best and brightest students are slowed by large classes, limited resources and government mandates.

Vouchers to support education in private schools are a philosophically sound answer for them.

Do not be taken in by opponents: Paying a private entity to accomplish a public purpose is not a bad idea. In fact, it is done all the time. Highways, for example, are built by private contractors; trash is collected by others; state-funded mental health services are provided by others. The list could go on. Private concerns often do the job better than the state can.

Such is the case with education -- not always, but enough to justify a state-funded alternative to public schools.

Voucher opponents miss the mark when they claim that private education is the sole financial responsibility of parents. The argument is especially unconvincing because the state is currently paying on a per-student basis to accomplish precisely the same purpose in public schools. The argument might hold water if public education were proved generally superior to private, but that is not the case.

Of course, more is at stake than money. Parents have a moral obligation to see that their children rise to their full potential. The state should help them do it -- at least up to the fraction of actual cost that was enacted by the Legislature ($500 to $3,000, depending on income).

If the current misguided effort succeeds in getting vouchers on the ballot, we urge voters to stand behind parental choice. Stand behind education as a public good. Reject public school politics. Cast your vote for human potential.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A5.

Begin Disclaimer.
Don't get me wrong. I love teachers. I think teachers are great. Well, I think great teachers are great. I think incompetent or apathetic teachers should find a new line of work. Anyone who looks into it deeply enough will find that powerful teacher's unions damage public education as much or more than they serve and help teachers. The member teachers are fantastic people. Even the big guys at the top of the union are probably well-intentioned. But, when it really comes down to it, I don't think teacher's unions are the good guys. But, again, I must state clearly. TEACHERS ARE GOOD. THEY DESERVE GOOD PAY. ALL CHILDREN DESERVE AN EDUCATION. ALL CHILDREN DESERVE THE BEST POSSIBLE EDUCATION. ANYONE WHO SAYS THAT THE CURRENT PUBLIC EDUCATION SYSTEM IS THE ONLY WAY TO ACCOMPLISH THIS IS EITHER LYING TO YOU, LYING TO HIMSELF OR BENEFITING GREATLY FROM THE STATUS QUO. End Disclaimer.