Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Voucher Funding Sham

We've all heard, ad nauseum, the claim from the Taxpayers-Should-Pay-Parents-Not-To-Send-Their-Children-To-A-Public-School special interest lobby Parents for Choice in Education that vouchers won't cost our schools one red cent and therefore must be a swell idea. By now, you've probably seen the TV spots and read the fliers. It's all over the blogosphere as well, so it MUST be true...

But is it? Do vouchers actually hold public schools harmless? Follow this logic and see for yourself:

Consider these facts (ironic source material courtesy of Sen. Stephenson's lobbying arm - Utah Taxpayers Association blog):

- Funding for the voucher scheme does originate from the General Fund. This fund consists primarily of revenue generated from sales taxes.

- Funding for public schools originates from the Uniform School Fund, consisting primarily of revenue generated from income taxes.

- BEFORE 1996, every dollar of income tax revenue in Utah went to support public schools.

- AFTER 1996, a constitutional amendment allowed the legislature to raid the Uniform School Fund (instead of the General Fund) to offset skyrocketing costs associated with higher education.

- We have BILLIONS in unmet transportation needs. To help meet these needs, the legislature has recently tapped into the General Fund (previously unheard of). Governor Huntsman's FY2008 proposed budget calls for more than 700 MILLION dollars to be spent on transportation from the general fund. We used to get by with user fees such as gas taxes and motor vehicle registration fees paying for our transportation needs. That day has come and gone.

- Since there isn't enough money in the General Fund to pay for both transportation and higher education ($674 MILLION in Huntsman's FY2008 proposed budget), guess where higher education must go? You guessed it...the Uniform School Fund!

- Therefore, every dollar that vouchers take out of the general fund is a dollar that higher education must go fetch from the Uniform School Fund.

With the analysis from the Hill that vouchers could cost Utah taxpayers over 420 MILLION DOLLARS in the next 13 years, are PCE and their paid-for legislators being completely honest with us that our public schools will indeed be held harmless? Are they saying that 420 million dollars to pay for new computers, textbooks, supplies, teaching assistants, professional development, curriculum design, or to pay for construction now instead of later wouldn't help our children's education?

If vouchers in reality are paid for by the Uniform School Fund, why didn't the bill simply have the money coming directly from public schools in the first place?

Study the PCE soundbites, see what they're trying to sell you, and decide for yourself.

17 comments:

Steve said...

Craig,

That's a great argument you have except for one gigantic fatal flaw.

Legislative discretion.

You're right; the legislature could do exactly what you are proposing. But at the same time, they may do something different.

We've run a $500 million dollar surplus over the last 2 years, which if continued would offset your doomsday $420 million dollar expense over 13 years more than adequately. But the future is unknown and your scenario surely counts on many things going wrong in order to realize these funding shortfalls and raiding of coffers.

The legislature is not compelled to fund anything and there are few statutes that force funding (in contrast to California's mandated budget woes) so any deficiency in competent execution of budgetary duties can be blamed squarely on the shoulders of a few people. Legislators. And I know how much you like accountability Craig...

However, the legislature may decide to bankrupt the entire state. Legislative incompetency is not a reason to get rid of vouchers; it's a reason to vote for a different representative or senator.

Craig said...

Dear Steve (Urquhart),

I might as well be talking to you/him based on your comments.

I will say that anyone who uses two semicolons in their reply does deserve a measure of respect :-)

And, I gave you/Steve on Politicopia a little haranguing so I don't mind some in return...

However, I'm going to call non sequitur on your remarks.

The fact that the legislature can and will change course does not offer me any sense of comfort.

You and I both know that once a private-school-entitlement market becomes established, the lobbying to increase and expand the program will become intense. Because the program is the darling of the existing power network, and because out-of-state interest groups and conservative thinktanks have a stake in growing the program as a model for other states, there is no question that the scheme would enjoy ongoing, continual, and possibly increased funding. Should resources become scarce, to which program will the legislature lend its support?

I believe it is appropriate also to consider the "incrementalist" strategy espoused by the Heartland Institute. I do not think it unrealistic that through the same "legislative discretion" you describe that the voucher program will continue to expand and the $420 million expense could easily grow to a much larger number.

Can you imagine the outcry that would take place within the private-school-entitlement community if legislators pushed for a reduction or elimination of vouchers once they were established?

You and I both know such a scenario would be highly unlikely.

As you also know the doomsday expense isn't mine - it's from fiscal analysts at the state who know more than I do how to calculate such expenditures.

The raiding of coffers is occurring even now. If it is happening now and we're enjoying the best economy in our history, what's going to happen in the future? You can cite legislative discretion all you want but the fact remains you can't make chicken salad without the chicken.

Oldenburg said...

How much money will actually be used however? Most private schools cost a lot more than the pithy "stipend" vouchers offer, especially to the poorest of the poor.

I just don't see that many families being able to utilize this fund to send their kids to a private school...except maybe middle-class catholics who can afford Juan Diego/Judge Memorial with the voucher + catholic discount. But again, how many is that? Have their been any studies to see how much utilization there will be of this program if it is upheld by the voters and the courts?

oh brother said...

Steve,

I don't think that you're being honest. the legislature also has gotten into a habit of giving nice healthy tax cuts, too. Who's to say these huge surplus years are going to continue? Everybody knows what gets cut when times get tight... public education takes the brunt every time.

Steve said...

Of course I'm being honest. The general thesis I'm presenting is that the future is unknown and that you might as well be against damn near everything the state does that comes out of the General Fund. What could be more honest than that?

Craig makes the conclusion that we should be against vouchers (and that they do hurt public schools) because they take money out of the General Fund and force higher education to take money from the Uniform School Fund. By that logic, anything that takes away money from the General Fund is bad for public education.

That on its face is ridiculous.

I grant Craig that there is a high degree of probably that most of what he says will come true. That still does not make vouchers a bad idea.

Let's run a little thought experiment here: In 10 years, everything Craig wrote comes to fruition, bar none.

Who do we blame? Do we say that the legislation was passed 10 years ago and therefore we are doomed to always be ruled by a mistake? Are we stuck? Are we unable to fix the pickle we're in?

Of course not. We get people to change the law. If the people in power won't change the law, we put people in power that will.

Vouchers aren't bad. No matter how hard you try to make them evil, they're simply not. They're tools to accomplish the goal of education children, just like public schools are.

I don't know that vouchers will help children, but I can say with all certainty that they will not hurt them and that they will not hurt public education.

Craig said...

Steve,

Thanks for your comments.

I am not prepared to acquiesce to your key point. I am calling out Parents for Choice and the legislators who claim that vouchers hold public schools harmless because it is simply untrue. At least previous incarnations of the voucher bills were honest, which is probably why they were voted down.

The pandora's box was opened when higher education was allowed to use Uniform School Funds. It is not ridiculous to suggest that we should be cautious about general fund expenditures that force higher education to dip into K-12 funds because such expenditures have an obvious impact on public school funding. I don't understand how that could possibly be viewed as ridiculous. I would consider that a responsible position.

To bring some stability to the process, Democrats have put forth legislation to cap the funding that can flow from the uniform school fund to higher education. Unfortunately, the majority party has rejected this legislation.

I do agree that vouchers are not "evil" - they are simply bad public policy.

And if most or even some of the things I mentioned were to come true, that would be a huge disappointment and in my opinion a net loss to our society.

You then throw up your hands and say, in essence, "well let's just have faith and try them out." That's not good enough for me, especially when, as mentioned previously, other voucher experiments have resulted in fraud, waste, abuse, and court challenges. Our legislation is even more loosey-goosey than theirs - the first bill didn't even require background checks! What compelling reason should anyone have to say "sure, what the heck, let's just give this a shot" when the evidence is pointing to problems, problems, problems.

Come back next year with a better bill. Let's establish some real accountability: core curriculum requirements, truancy provisions, apples-to-apples testing, a genuine audit process, GRAMA protections, a voucher that covers the entire cost of tuition, and universal access to all who apply. Hold on...what's that? Oh, you're right - that's a CHARTER SCHOOL!

Thanks...Craig.

JM Bell said...

Good job, Mr Axford.

You are a gentleman and a scholar.

Emily said...

That would be Mr. Johnson, mr. Bell. :-)

Steve said...

Vouchers are only bad public policy because you proclaim them to be so.

The truth of the matter is that the jury is still out. Actual voucher programs in the US are few and far between, Wisconsin's program being the oldest at 16 years.

You keep writing about rampant fraud and misuse but I have yet to see you cite actual sources on this.

I would venture a guess that there have been many more documented cases of Medicare fraud than school voucher fraud but I bet you're not in favor of killing that entitlement, are you?

You have however, changed your argument mid stream. I agree fully that we should be skeptical of government spending. I am conservative in the true sense of the word. But that's not your initial argument. You rally around the "fact" that vouchers use General Fund money which takes away from higher education which takes from the Uniform School Fund.

As I see it, your rebuttal doesn't address my counterpoint or your original argument.

It would be nice if you could actually address my points on their face and in their merits at some point.

But it is much easier to rally the base than to ferret out the finer points of the debate...

Peter said...

I'm going to call BS on two key arguments that have been made.

First, oh brother, public education has never taken the brunt of a state revenue shortfall. In 2001 and 02 when revenues were falling and everything was getting cut the State Legislature held public education harmless. How did they do that? They sucked money out of transportation, higher ed, rainy day funds and HHS. You can cut it any way but when the times got tough the Legislature prioritized public ed over everything else.

Second, the change in the Constitution to allow Higher Ed to receive funding from income tax was accepted by 70% of the people. It's laughable for anti-voucher folks to bemoan this change when they are hoping to get a positive vote from the people on the voucher law. This change allowed greater funding flexibility but to date the State continues to supplement the Education Fund with General Fund dollars.

Let's get our facts straight and stop with the demagoguery of the Legislature and vouchers.

Craig said...

Peter,

You have mischaracterized my argument. Parents for Choice and other legislators are claiming that because their experiment is to be paid for by General Fund taxpayer dollars that this holds public education harmless. This is bogus.

And if we're issuing demagoguery awards I'm pretty comfortable PCE would win that going away.

Steve said...

Craig,

And my point is that you must further carry out this logic to hold that any piece of government that also draws dollars from the General Fund also hurts education... Which sounds more bogus to you?

Craig said...

Steve,

You claim you "can say with all certainty that [vouchers] will not hurt [children] and that they will not hurt public education"

And yet you say that I make an unsubstantiated claim when I state that vouchers are bad public policy, in spite of numerous blog entries in which I make my case.

My question for you is - where is your evidence that you can state with "all certainty" that vouchers will not harm students or public schools? Did you have personal revelation?

To answer your previous request, here are a few citations, but before you read these remember that Utah's voucher scheme is the most loosely regulated in the country. By your own admission the existing experiments are, by comparison, quite small. Think about it - if policymakers, school boards, and attorneys general have these kinds of headaches with small experiments, just imagine what the troubles would be like at a larger scale and with even looser regulations.

Who cleans up problem choice schools?

"School struggles to maintain order"

"Choice funds used to buy 2 Mercedes"

"Mandella School Ordered Closed"

"Doyle OKs bill giving state more power over voucher schools"

"State orders private school out of choice program"

"Choice school rules tighten"

"State yanks school's voucher status"

House urged to tighten voucher rules

"Success Academy supervisor faces charge of grand theft"

"Back To basics Military Academy Had No Occupational License, City Claims / A 13-Year-Old Academy Student Died During An Orientation Camp-out"

"Poll finds 61 percent of Floridians, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, whites, African-Americans and Latinos, oppose the state's flagship voucher program."

Investment firm sees profit in disabled students

"Florida Senate President: 'The voucher situation is a disaster waiting to happen'"

Private educators seek to limit vouchers to accredited schools

"Editorial responds to blistering state audit of Florida voucher programs."

"Vouchers withheld from 41 schools"

"Florida government is indirectly handing $138-million to private contractors whose work is not scrutinized and whose identities may not even be known."

"The education commissioner's misappropriation of $1.1-million in voucher funds raises more questions about program oversight and concerns about public schools being cheated."

"Voucher CEO/convicted rapist sentenced to jail"

"Scandals rock Milwaukee's school-voucher program"

Teacher of the Year gives vouchers a failing grade

"VOUCHERS = NO SOLUTION, BUT DEFINITELY A PROBLEM! Cites school in Milwaukee which faked enrollment numbers to increase its funding"

"Wisconsin voucher program’s latest instance of fraud"

"Problems with Milwaukee’s Voucher Program"

"State keeps voucher payments from 7 schools"

"Accountability problems with Milwaukee voucher schools"

"Vouchers: Reform or Gamble? / "Even the authors of the Florida voucher legislation are concerned about the growing number of scandals."

"Milwaukee - Market forces not always the answer"

Steve's smarter younger brother said...

Look.

The free market system is set up to allow competition. The systems encourages failures.

Can we chance failures on our children?

Steve said...

Did I have a personal revelation? Wow... It's always nice to bring a little religious bigotry into an argument you are losing to prove your point and your "big tent" party morals.

I'm sure you're outraged when Ann Coulter says faggot, or when Don Imus talks about nappy headed hos, but as long as it's religion you attack you're good to go.

Thank you for showing your true colors...

But back to the subject at hand.

Yes, we can chance failing our children and we do all the time. This argument might be more sound if public education gauranteed success, but it does not.

Public education failed the 23.3 percent of students that should have, but did not, graduate high school.

Which also goes to the point that Craig tries to make. I am not saying that vouchers are a panacea. I am not saying that private schools don't have problems. What I am saying is that they have no more problems than public schools.

I wasted my time reading at least part of every article that Craig listed and I concede, as I always have, that there will be some charlatans involved in the private school system. However, there is no evidence in any of these articles that private schools suffer from MORE malfeasance than public schools. Moreover, in most of the examples that Craig cites, funds are withheld, prosecutions are underway, and people ARE being held accountable.

What kills me though is that you people can't admit that there are plenty of people in public education that are just phoning it in. They're not being held accountable today. Case in point: "Investigations Math" in Alpine and now in Provo.

My evidence that vouchers will not hurt children is in pure logic. Show me how a voucher can hurt a child, for I see no harm coming to anyone by a piece of paper. Schools may not benefit children, but individual private schools are not (by your own evidence) grouped as a collective and therefore are not synonymous with vouchers in the same way that public schools and public education are.

It's amazing that anyone would say that some children won't suffer in a one size fits all system AKA public education.

It's frustrating to see you use the same old arguments that cut both ways for and against your position.

This argument started as a case against vouchers from a financial standpoint. That argument has been shamed. If you're still not convinced, I'll ask you one last question; Are you against Pell grants? If so, at least you are logically congruent.

The rhetoric on display here is the same tired stuff that democrats have been spewing for months on end. It's stale and more importantly, wrong. There are some great liberal (and conservative) arguments against school vouchers, you just haven't made them.

Anonymous said...

I wish I lived in St. George so I could have Steve for my Representative. Keep up the good work.

Craig said...

Steve,

Lighten up, dude :-) My comment was meant to be light-hearted - we probably attend the same church each Sunday...

I appreciate your passion on this issue and for taking the time to debate the topic with me.

Utah's graduation rate is among the highest in the nation. We are not failing our children.

I believe that legitimate questions of fraud, waste, abuse, accountability, and funding are not old, tired, stale arguments. They are at the core of why I oppose vouchers and I'm not alone in my concerns.

When a school that becomes a casualty of the free market closes and hundreds of students are suddenly displaced, children are adversely affected. That is not a stale argument. That is a real consequence.

When a school's owners divert funds solely to enrich themselves instead of applying the money to the students, yes, I believe the students are hurt by such behavior.

When a school closes without notice and is tossed into the "free-market boneyard", who has to pick up the pieces? Public schools.

When voucher money from the general fund is spent that could have been applied to higher education and higher ed fetches that money from the uniform school fund instead, such an act does not hold public education harmless.

One final thought - given the small scale of the voucher experiments to date, I believe the evidence is clear that on a per-school basis the level of problems and headaches caused by lax accountability of vouchers far exceeds anything the public schools have or will ever see. However, I do support school choice. I founded a charter school and advise another. I believe strongly in innovation and in making sure that the parents who trust public schools with their children's education have the best possible experience.

I invite you now, Steve, to have the last word.

Thanks...Craig.