Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tax dollars taken from public education deserves vote

All Utahns benefit from an excellent public education system. Our youth enter the work force among the most literate and skilled in the world. But to hear Writers Group columnist Joe Baker and other voucher supporters, you would think our education system was a complete failure.

Utah's schools are not a complete failure. Utah - and specifically Southern Utah - has some of the very best public schools around. Furthermore, there is no proof that a private school produces "better results" than a public school.

According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, public school students show little to no difference in performance, and in some areas tend to do better. It is only in head-to-head comparisons where private schools' ability to reject students that don't meet their standards that private schools outperform public schools.

Vouchers are promoted as the solution to overcrowded schools. To relieve this pressure, there would need to be enough affordable private schools in Utah to absorb the demand for private schools that voucher supporters claim exists. But Utah doesn't enjoy a large number of private schools - let alone affordable ones.

A Google search of private schools in Utah shows Cedar City has exactly one private school listed on www.allprivate schools.org. With 16 students (all from out of state) it is a school for "at risk youth." Under the voucher law a school must have at least 40 students to qualify and at least one of the student's parents must live in Utah.

In Washington County, five schools are listed. The majority of these schools are for "at risk teenagers" whose parents live out of the state. There is neither significant demand for private schools in our region nor much capacity to relieve pressure on the public school system.

Baker claims that with vouchers, private schools will be "affordable to all Utah parents." It is not clear whether vouchers will lower the price of a private education enough to entice parents away from public schools, especially when the majority of Utah parents are happy with them.

According to the National Association of Independent Schools, the median tuition for its member private schools is $14,000. The maximum a low-income family could expect to receive under Utah's voucher legislation is $3,000. Assuming Utah's few private schools could approach the national median tuition, it is hard to accept Baker's claim that all parents in Utah could afford to send their children to a private school even if they wanted to.

Polls show an overwhelming majority of Utahns favor placing vouchers on the ballot. They are happy with their local neighborhood schools, and have consistently advocated for improving public education rather than funding private schools with public funds. Many Southern Utah parents have nothing but praise for their public schools, using words like "wonderful" and "excellent" when they describe their children's teachers.

Voucher proponents recently sent out letters telling voters that they "must not sign" the referendum. What do they fear? Why not let the people decide? It's our tax dollars in question, we should be given the opportunity to vote on how we want our tax dollars spent.

Utah spending (per capita) on public school students ranks 51st (below the District of Columbia.) We have a lot of kids to educate with limited resources. Why divert one penny of those precious resources to subsidize an industry that doesn't need and doesn't want the influx of students? Why not do everything we can to support the neighborhood schools that open their doors every day to all of our children?

Those of us who are opposed to using public money for private education have no problem with private schools. But when something affects how our tax dollars are spent and the future of our neighborhood schools, we just want to cast our ballot.

Emily Bingham Hollingshead is a Cedar City resident, a small business owner and a mom to two sons who attend Cedar City public schools.


Jeremy said...

This is the most effective argument against government subsidization of private schools that I've read. Thank you for pointing out correctly that public schools are not broken in Utah and that there is little evidence vouchers will provide any benefit. Great article. Simple arguments like this are worth more than a week of PCE's television ads.

Marshall said...

Wow - this article has it all, awesome job!

Anonymous said...

I think Emily makes an interesting point here, when we first moved to SLC we looked at the local schools and decided that private schools were the best option for our children.

But, being in SLC is the caveat.

Geographically speaking, in SLC we have the option of public schools and private schools. A number of middle class families sacrifice to take advantage of private schools, because they feel it is what’s best for their children.

Rather than working with a plain vanilla of a traditional public school, private schools do a better job of personalizing and meeting the educational needs of my children. So why not give middle class parents a break?

For example, Tuition at the Carden School in SLC ranges between $3,000 to $7,000 depending on the grade the child is in.

Tuition at Judge Memorial High School is $8,000 a year and tuition at Rowland Hall is $14,000 a year.

Lastly, Juan Diego School is also $8,000.00 a year.

In each case, a tuition voucher of $3,000 would be a big help to a middle class family that earns a $90,000 a year.

After taxes, that’s about 60,000 take home after taxes, not including property and sales taxes.

A majority of those state taxes go to towards education.

What is wrong with giving that family the option to of having a voucher in lieu of distributed payment to public schools? The voucher argument isn’t about blasting public schools, it’s about helping parents achieve what is best for their children and helping parents have a choice.

We have no problems redistribution wealth to welfare recipients; so why not help families who want to send their children to private schools in lieu of public schools.

It won’t hurt the public schools, we are just taking the funding that family would pay for a child and hand over to school where they want to send their child.

Again, it’s about control, teacher unions want control off all the money and are scared to share it with those who take a pro-active role in their child’s education.

Emily said...

Anonymous -

Thanks for checking in.

A family who earns $90,000 would not qualify for a voucher. According to the PCE website, you would have to have a household of 11 and earn $81,030 to qualify, and it is not clear how much that voucher would be worth.

Even my family of 4 would not qualify, because even on my husband's state salary we make too much money. A family of 4 has to earn $37,000 to qualify.

And besides that -- there are no private schools here in Cedar City. In fact, 21 out of 29 Utah counties have no private schools. In Cedar City, many many many middle class families would not be able to afford private school tuition, even with a voucher. Our housing prices are off the charts, and yet most families here earn around $30,000 per year and have an average of 3 or 4 children.

And finally, Iron county schools are phenomenal! I am not convinced that families would pull their children out of neighorhood schools and sacrifice so much just because the state is going to pay 1/8 of their child's tuition.

Frank Staheli said...

Most of the article talks about why private schools will fail in Utah. Why then are you so concerned that private schools will succeed? Let it take its course, and it will be an interesting lesson for all of us.

Very few voucher advocates are saying that the public schools are broken. I certainly am not. My children go to a fine public school, and we probably won't even use vouchers. The whole issue is that parents should have more choices for educating their children. That will make us all better.

One issue that bothers me greatly about voucher opponents is the claim that tax money will be taken from the system. It is a disingenuous claim. If it costs nearly $6,000 to educate a child in Utah, yet the most a child can claim from a voucher is $3,000 how can it logically be claimed that there will be less money per student in the public system (when for each one that leaves, they take only up to half of what was used to educate them in the public school)?

Emily said...

Hi Frank,

I just re-read my article to make sure I wasn't missing something. I don't think I said public schools will fail in the voucher system -- I think I said that those of us in Iron county have very little use for them...

There are no public schools here. And even if there were suddenly a huge surge of public schools, I don't think that enough parents would abandon their current schools to justify paying for them. I know that I wouldn't... and we wouldn't even qualify for a voucher.

As I said in my response to Anonymous, Iron County families make low wages and even with a voucher, I am not sure families could afford a private school, especially when they are really quite happy with how things are going.

Anonymous said...

Good Job Emily!


Emily said...


One more thing... while this particular voucher legislation takes $$ from the general fund and not the education fund, one could argue that when times get tough, utah's public education, public employees, public services are the first things to get squeezed.

The bottom line really is this... no matter what your position on vouchers, I believe it should be put to a vote. If the voters choose to overturn the legislation, then the people have spoken. If the people say that it's a good idea, let the law go into effect.

We just think it needs to go to a vote. That really was the bottom line point of my article.

Anonymous said...

No anon, it's about what is right for the majority of Utah children.

Richard Watson said...

To the first anon: You have the whole control arguement wrong. He and other voucher-repubs seem to think that teacher "unions" (they are actually associations, not unions)want to keep control of the power and money in public schools. Too bad teachers don't have control, maybe they could make some serious changes in public schools. In the real world of Utah government, local school districts and the Legislature control public schools. They and only they decide where the money goes...not the "unions".

pramahaphil said...

This an awesome article. You are one of the only people to have articulated logical arguements against vouchers.

Anonymous said...


If that is the case, then I give credit to the state legislature for enabling parents like me to have a greater say in the school their child can go to by giving me a choice between public and private schools, by empowering me to determine how my school tax dollars are spent. As a divorced Mom, this benefit may not help me at my income level but what about those making 40 or 50 or 60K a year.

Emily said...

40, 50, 60k a year, it depends on the number of people in their household.

My family won't qualify cause our family is too small and we make too much money (which is funny to type cause it seems like we live paycheck to paycheck). But even if we did qualify, it would mean that we'd have to come up with the rest of the tuition, which is scary cause some months we struggle just to make the house payment. House over our heads or tuition? I'd choose house over our heads.

Richard Watson said...

You have the choice now. It has always been there and it will always be there. You have the choice to send your kids to whatever school you choose. Vouchers is not about "choice". Vouchers only helps those who already have the resources to choose. And, only 4 counties actually have enough private schools to "choose" from. So, by your definition of "choice", then most of Utahns will not have that "choice" that you want.
Admit it, it's not about "choice".

Anonymous said...


It is about choice, as a single mom vouchers empower me and others to have a greater choice in educational options for my children.

mtloiy said...

You have the power to chose now.
Sorry, but I am not convinced that vouchers are a "choice". It is about money, power and politics.