Saturday, October 27, 2007


Last spring, Utah's legislature passed a private school voucher program. While vouchers have been used on a limited basis in other parts of the country, Utah's law is quite a bit different, and a lot more extensive than anything tried elsewhere. In Utah's system a student leaving the public school system would receive a voucher for the cost of a private school. The amount the student receives is based on family size and income. The average voucher amount is estimated to be $2,000. One of the things that sets Utah's law apart from others is that the public school will still receive the funding they were getting before the student left, but now they have 1 fewer student, resulting in an increase in per-pupil spending.

Of course, the voucher law was not without its opponents, and actually passed by a very slim margin in the House before the Senate and Governor approved it. However, even after its passage, voucher opponents did not rest. Instead, they gathered the thousands of signatures needed to get a proposition on the November ballot to take the issue to the general public.

The voucher debate has been raging in Utah for months now, especially in the blogosphere. Most Utah bloggers are against vouchers, which reflects the mostly Democratic nature of bloggers in general. In Utah, the Democratic party is pretty much unanimous in its opposition to vouchers, while the Republican party is mostly for them, although it is much more of a split vote than one might think.

I have been reading and watching from afar throughout the voucher debate, without much commenting on my part. There are literally dozens of posts on vouchers by just about every Utah blogger I read. Now, the television commercials and glossy mailings are in full force. I even picked up a pile of anti-voucher literature during parent-teacher conference this week. With the election coming soon, I decided it was time to write a voucher post of my own. I've gone over a few of the contention points that I have seen discussed, and that are on much of the pro and anti voucher literature, and have added my thoughts on each:

Certified teachers:

Many opponents complain that private schools don't have to have "real" teachers. That seemed outrageous, until I remembered that my University of Utah degree was heavy on what they called "adjunct professors". Basically, these professors are just professionals from the community who are hired to teach a few classes at the college. I had a great number of upper division, senior level and higher classes taught by adjunct professors. Incidentally, most of them were great. They actually had real life experiences to share, and insight into what was going on now in the accounting profession.

So now it doesn't seem like such a negative.

"Crazy" religious schools:

Seems a bit far fetched. How many are in the state right now? What's the demand in the state for it?

Honestly, this line of argument reminds me of those that complain to me about the War on Terror just being about using fear to control people. Well, that's exactly what's happening here.


I had an old friend who had an autistic child and they were on a waiting list for a really expensive school and scholarship program. I know that there are many people just like them. Vouchers would help families and children just like my friend's. In fact, vouchers could become the avenue to create more schools designed specifically for individual needs.

Will it Save or Cost Money?

This is one point that has gone back and forth a little. So far, I think final word goes to a pair of posts over at Jesse's blog, here and here.

Basically, the initial fear concerning vouchers was that it would take money away from public schools, so Utah's law provided that the public school will still get the money from the state that they would have gotten had the student remained enrolled. So the voucher proponents now argue that public schools will in effect receive more money per student than they were before. Pretty much a win-win scenario.

Of course, voucher opponents countered back with some math of their own, (see the comments) but overall, and considering Jesse's new calculations, it appears vouchers will result in a net savings for Utah and Utah's public schools.

Representative Steve Urquhart is a sponsor of the voucher bill, as well as being a fellow blogger. He has a lot of good information on his blog, plus this link to a debate he participated in recently. Many of these same questions are brought up in that forum.

After reading the arguments for and against vouchers, and weighing the pros and cons, I will be voting for Referendum 1 next month.


Ashlee said...

So, how much extra will it cost you as a tax payer now that one child is costing double?

Cameron said...

Ah, but that's the thing. A child in public school costs $7500. If that child leaves public school, the school no longer has that cost. Even if the child qualifies for the full $3000 voucher, the school still saves $4500. And the school still gets the funding from the state that that child represented. So there is actually more money per pupil than there was before.

There are some deficiencies to this math though. A lot depends on how many students switch from public to private. I've linked to some of the really good discussions of this point.

Rob said...

Everyone makes mistakes Cameron. Even Magic Valley Mormons.

The $7500.00 is not the correct number. It is closer to $5000.00

A poll showed that Utah Republicans are split 51% against vouchers, 49% for.

Are you really okay with the impropriety surrounding the Parents for Choice campaign Cameron?

Cameron said...

Hi Rob,

Mormons are never wrong, you should know that. :-)

I actually noticed some chatter about the cost issue, so I'd like to find out what basis is being used to calculate the various costs now being thrown out there. Either way though, it results in a savings.

As for PCE's tactics, all I know about them is the television ads and what I've read on your blog. Their first ads were dumb for this market. However, I find no small irony in the fact that they tried to drum up support for vouchers by linking their opponents to "bad guys" like Ted Kennedy and the teachers union and (and I mean this as nicely as possible, because I do respect you) that you are trying to drum up support against vouchers by linking its supporters to "bad guys" like PCE.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I honestly don't know enough about the whole voucher thing to comment intelligently. Also, as it is a state matter in Idaho, I feel it inappropriate to comment.

One point, though, in your post that caught me by surprise was the whole "crazy religious" schools comment. While not overwhelmingly LDS as Utah, there are quite a few LDS in Idaho, especially southern Idaho, n'est pas? Along with them, there are Roman Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, and I know there are United Methodists, because the Rocky Mountain Conference campground is, I believe, located in your fair state. I know many outsiders think of Idaho as the state of Randall Terry, militias, and Christian racists, but I know they are a minuscule part of your state (and those types exist everywhere, even here on the prairie). So who, exactly, are these "crazies", and why is it the state's business to wonder whether someone's religious beliefs can be so described? I know the issue of vouchers is often challenged on general principles of "establishment" and "free exercise", but if you are going to have vouchers, this is just something that will have to be dealt with, no?

I guess I just don't understand some political debates. That's all.

By the way, I do hope you have not read me to even come close to insinuating that the Church of Latter-Day-Saints is "crazy". It is not a belief system to which I adhere, but I honor those who do, as I honor any who adhere to any, or no, faith, as long as they do so in a way consistent with honoring other human beings and their integrity. I am embarrassed that I feel it necessary to write this, but I did not want any lack of clarity on that particular point. The LDS gets bashed far too much by more mainstream Christians for me to rest comfortable with it. Call it United Methodist guilt.

Cameron said...

Hi Geoffrey,

First off, I'm in Utah now. I moved here a few months ago, so the voucher thing is a Utah thing. Sorry for the confusion. :-)

But you are correct that southern Idaho has a fairly large LDS population, as well as all of the other religions you mention. In fact, I think I've been in the area of the Methodist campground you're talking about. Pretty country.

The "crazy" religious school thing I mentioned was concerning some arguments I have seen against vouchers. They claim that voucher money could be used to pay for tuition at extremist type religious schools. And not necessarily Mormon schools, as most people here in Utah are LDS, including opponents of the voucher law. But the extremist angle falls flat for me. I just think it sounds a bit far fetched.

But thank you for the kind words about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I appreciate what you've said here, and what you've written in the past. And I hope you're still reading that Book of Mormon you ordered. :-)

Rob said...

That's right Cameron, so you should take it to heart when I say, "No to referendum 1!"

The following is from the Davis County Clipper opinion titled Time, place isn't right for school vouchers:

The tactics used by the pro-voucher forces have been suspect, if not down-right ugly, from the start.

Out-of-state money was used to fund the campaigns of candidates for the legislature without candidates making their stance clear to the voters. Even when we asked some directly, they would not admit it. We take campaigns with hidden agendas very seriously.

Some of the pro-voucher candidates seemed to lack any real substance other than favoring vouchers.

Even with all the high pressure tactics to get pro-voucher people into office, it took severe arm twisting to get vouchers to squeak by in the legislature.

Then pro-voucher forces sought to block Novembers vote by insisting that an "amendment" to the voucher bill could stand on it's own even if people voted down the original voucher law.

When it became evident that a vote couldn't be stopped, pro-voucher forces then tried to count the results on a district-by-district basis. This "electoral college" approach meant vouchers could conceivably pass even if voted down by the majority.

Sanity was saved by the Utah Supreme Court when it ended the mess by ordering a binding, up-and-down vote for Nov. 6, with no funny vote counting.

Aside from the highhanded efforts to subvert the public, a real problem with vouchers is that they are simply the old story of the camel getting its nose in the tent. While vouchers proposals are modest, there is a real risk that demands will soon grow to eat up all the Oreos,

A push to raise the voucher amounts is likely because the present voucher plan doesn't offer enough for poor families to benefit, and it provides only incidental relief for the rest. We suspect the low amounts were planned to ease opposition, but with intent to raise them later.

The whole Oreos thing also seems like an obvious bribe: "Let our children go, and we'll leave money behind,"They've always been free to go and leave all the money behind.

Vouchers also seem to be aimed at fixing what isn't broken. With Utah schools doing generally well, vouchers seem a better idea for inner city schools elsewhere.

Something's not right with this issue, And with the type of questionable behavior some pro-vouchers folks have already shown, it's highly unlikely they'll change their stripes if vouchers pass.

While we don't want to shut the door forever, all this baggage surrounding this issue leads us to conclude it's time to hold off: Someday maybe -- not here, not now.

Cameron said...

Jesse called these types of arguments FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt).

His post taking on some of these fear-type arguments is really good.

Anonymous said...

Cameron, - think you are confusing the word fear with the word fact.

Republicans in Utah are in power because they are experts in using fear. Now you want us to believe that all is well.

steve u. said...

Nice blog. I'll be back.

I like your analysis of the voucher bill. You and I might end up on the losing side tomorrow, but the State has enjoyed a very good dialogue on education, and I tend to believe that good things will come of that.

UtahTeacher said...

Linked from Rep. Urquhart's blog. I appreciate how you both seem to remain reasonable in a heated debate, but that doesn't excuse you for ignoring the numbers.

The anonymous below had it right, we can just as easily label the FUD argument as pro-voucher FUD attempting to divert attention from anti-voucher fact. It is insulting when both the $7500 - $2000 = $5500 and the $1.4/$1.8 billion savings are verifiable lies. You can check the Nuts and Bolts posts in my blog for long explanations and links. Here's a short, simple explanation of why the individual voucher savings are a myth, with or without mitigation money:

Salem said...


I watched your video. It is flawed. You are operating under the scenario that only one student leaves. What if 30 students leave? If nothing else it confirms to me how accurate the first cookie commercial was. Also, isn't the voucher money coming from the general fund rather than money for the schools?

I have yet to see a clear argument made as to why vouchers are a bad thing.

Nice try utahteacher, but your arguments don't add up.

steve u. said...


Likewise, I admire your civil tone. It is unfortunate how much civil attempts at political dialogue stick out -- because they are scarce.

Though I thought you were brilliant to use the cookies to illustrate other costs (and wish I could have joined you and a gallon of milk to clean up), I think your conclusion was off the mark. Each switcher does save the system money. If we get enough switchers, the program saves us lots of money.

The polls close in 18 minutes. Let's keep up the good dialogue for future projects.

UtahTeacher said...


Thanks for watching. I have to respectfully disagree with all of the flaws you point out and wonder how even your comments in anyway allow construction and salary costs to be redistributed as in the Eyre's commercial.

1. A scenario of one student leaving a given school is as realistic as 30. The number of students taking vouchers wouldn't be uniform from school to school to fit the tidy suppositions of PCE. And even if 30 students leaving would create a positive balance for the school (it wouldn't), how would that be a selling point? "The schools that lose only a few students will lose thousands, while those that hit the magic number (not sure what that would be) will break even. Good luck planning how many teachers to hire."

2. If 30 kids left with an average voucher of $2250, the district would lose $67,500. If all of these kids were from the same grade and all lived along the same bus route, you could cut a teacher and a bus. What other major costs would you save? You still need a lab, utilities, salaries, etc. If the 30 kids were spread more realistically around the school, you probably still lose a teacher, resulting in some grades with smaller classes than before and some higher. You have to run the bus, so you cut somewhere else.

3. Please read the text of the bill, lines 309-315.

The general fund distributes the voucher amount to the school, AND the voucher amount is removed from the district and returned to the Uniform School Fund...where it just sits there, unused until being rolled over into the budget allocations for the next year. It counts as money allocated to education, so the misleading "total spent per student" statistic appears better even though both the school and district actually lost money.

Read the text of the bill. I think the unclarity of the bill's funding and the dishonest portrayal of the cookie commercial were the bill's greatest defense. The text of the bill betrays it as a shell game. This is a clear argument: misleading the public about the true financial impacts of vouchers is wrong.

UtahTeacher said...

Rep. Urquhart,

Thank you for your response. I missed your reply as I was bouncing around the house a bit as I slowly composed my post.

My question is how does each switcher save money? I've read your analysis and some of Jesse's (CoolestFamilyEver) about which decimal of one percent results in savings, but they all seem flawed in accepting that the entire remnant of UTA's $7500 is "savings." Saratoga Springs High School is going up whether kids use vouchers at my school or not. Employee salary does not get cut by tiny percentages as individual students leave. Hiring one less teacher saves less than the cost of 25-28 vouchers (whatever the district's FTE is).

I think the whole philosophical basis of voucher funding is a misnomer. The official WPU is not defined as being a budget of what it costs to educate one kid--it's just a useful "funding mechanism" and way to compare between states with different populations:
We don't receive individual allocations of roads, police, fire service, etc. Public Ed. wouldn't be possible if we tried to carve it up into $7000 chunks.

And small side note: I am 110% sincere that I have appreciated your tone of debate even while not agreeing with you. What's your opinion of this?