Sunday, October 28, 2007

Utah vouchers out of context

Must admit to becoming intrigued at the debate in Utah on private school vouchers. Should the state pay private school tuition for rich and poor alike? It's a question voters will answer on Nov. 6.

As a Republican, I've been fascinated by two evolving strategies. The first is that of voucher supporters to take everything "out of context" to try and bolster their arguments. The second is the strategy of current Gov. Jon Huntsman, who says he supports vouchers, but who is a fairly reluctant warrior on behalf of the voucher program.

My previous post about Gov. Huntsman's "dipsy doodle" on the voucher issue is below. I add to it based on recent media reports. It's a fascinating tightrope that the Governor is walking.

Huntsman, of course, signed the bill that is now the subject of the referendum. He says he supports vouchers as one avenue of school reform.

But he is an increasingly reluctant standard bearer for the cause. And with due note. It's not a popular idea with the majority of Utahns, from what I read.

At a news conference almost two weeks ago, Huntsman appeared and gave his tepid approval for a voucher program. BUT he urged Utahns to read up on the issue and decide for themselves.

Then, a pro-voucher group called Parents for Choice, selectively cut and pasted the Governor's remarks into a TV ad. They took his words out of context and used them for their own ends.

That seems disingenuous to me.

The Governor, through his spokesperson, said:

"Huntsman's spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley says the Governor's office did not approve the ad, but "The governor has said that anything in the public domain - people are welcome to use."

That was reported by Glen Warchol of the Salt Lake City Tribune. The whole article is here.

Particularly intriguing is how the Governor has not objected to this cutting and pasting. Note these stories about what Gov. Huntsman REALLY said:

"What you don't see is the part of the press conference in which Huntsman tells Utahns it is OK to vote against vouchers."

"Whatever you think is right, whatever you can justify, is the right answer for you," Huntsman says in the portion vouchers supporters edited out.

And, this analysis from long-time political reporter and columnist Paul Rolly, also of the Tribune:

"Huntsman, after months of sitting on the fence, even though he signed the two pro-voucher bills sent to him by the Legislature, finally agreed to participate with voucher supporters in a press conference Oct. 17, just three weeks before the election. He said he would vote for vouchers, but still urged his constituents to follow their conscience.

"Voucher spin doctors edited his comments as best they could and now are using them in their latest TV ads."

You can read Rolly's piece here.

Reading both these articles and previous ones leads me to only one conclusion: Gov. Jon Huntsman is a supporter of vouchers but isn't as passionate about the issue as those who are so willing to cut and paste his face onto the issue. This is one issue of many that he must address.

Has the issue of creating a new entitlement program in the form of private school vouchers and supported by a fringe group become the "litmus test" for Utah Republicans??

If so, it would seem that many Utah Republicans are allowing this fringe group, dedicated to the single issue of having taxpayers pay for private school, dictate what it means to be a Republican in Utah.

I hope this isn't the case. Not only are new entitlement programs such as school vouchers the downfall of the Republican Party - as we've seen in the U.S. Congress - dividing Republicans on these kinds of issues doesn't allow our party to be the party of leaders.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Utah governor tries to have it all - dipsy doodle

As I understood it, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, a Republican, signed the school voucher law to create an entitlement program for people who want to be given public tax dollars to send their children to private school. It seems like a non-conservative position to take. Especially for people who call themselves Republicans.

While the voucher effort unfolded, the Governor said he supported vouchers, but would not campaign actively for them.

Subsequently, in a news conference, he gave a lukewarm endorsement for vouchers and urged Utah voters to take a good hard look at the issue and decide for themselves. I liked that part. He gave voters credit for being able to study the issue and make up their own minds. A friend sent me the story, and I'll put a link to it here.

But there comes another story saying that the Governor is appearing in a television ad produced and paid for by the pro-voucher folks. Huh? I thought he wasn't going to do that.

And then today yet another story that quotes the good Governor as saying he "can't control" his public image, or what people film while he is in public.

(I'll try to paste some of it in and give a link, but am still technically inept.)

"Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Thursday he had no control over the use of his public statements backing school vouchers in television commercials and other advertising paid for by a pro-voucher group.

"Huntsman has said repeatedly he would not become involved in the referendum campaign beyond reiterating his longtime support for vouchers. The governor has stopped short, however, of asking Utahns to join him in voting for the referendum."

Link to the news story: here.

Where I am from, we call that a "dipsy-doodle" or trying to have it both ways. He wants to mollify the pro-voucher folks, and not rile up the majority of Utahns who seem to oppose vouchers. That's disappointing. I thought the guy had some promise.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Reasoned thoughts against vouchers

Good folks in Utah have been blasted by arguments for and against school vouchers. I've been in search of some good, reasoned arguments and have found these that I commend to readers.

The first is an editorial by KSL-TV that argues against vouchers based on some solid thinking about re-directing tax dollars:

The KSL Editorial Board has thoughtfully considered the views presented by opponents and proponents of school vouchers, and has come to the conclusion that a broad taxpayer supported voucher system should not be implemented in Utah.

Our opposition to vouchers boils down to a fundamental question: Is Utah's public school system broken and in such disarray that doing something as radical and unproven as directing precious tax dollars toward private schools, many of them parochial, the answer?

We think not!

It is not a question of school choice since parents already have a variety of options in Utah. Any parent who so chooses can send a child to a private school, or a charter school, or a different public school! School choice is not the issue!

A vote against vouchers must not be interpreted as a vote for the status quo. Make no mistake about it, there's plenty of room for improvement. Still, contemplate what could be accomplished if the energy that has been directed at vouchers could be redirected toward implementing reasoned, effective and adequately funded reforms in the tried and tested public school system.

In KSL's view, that's where the focus of Utahns ought to be. Let's reject vouchers and work toward making changes that will benefit all Utah children for generations to come.

Here is a link to the editorial.

The second informational thinking I came across was from a blog. This rationale posits that the arguments that voucher supporters are using simply isn't logical, especially when one really sits down to do the math.

I quote here from just part of the blog by a Tim Panogos, but strongly recommend you read it in its entirety here.

"Benefits from vouchers, for the public and the taxpayer, accrue only after a significant portion of students transfer out of public schools, and then only if they do it in the next five years. That’s not going to happen. In the 30-second “Oreo” commercial, there is talk of two or three students transferring to private schools from one class. That’s only 10 percent of a 30-pupil class. Projections are that much less than 10% of students will move.

"If we got a 10% transfer, the additional money available to the public school is too small to do much good — certainly it will never prevent a tax increase — and the class size reduction takes the class size from unmanageable to slightly less unmanageable. Education Department studies done in the 1980s showed achievement in classrooms increasing measurably only when class size got below 18 students per class, and significantly improving only when class size got below 15 students per class.

"To get classroom size reductions enough to help out, then, we’d have to get half the students in public schools to move to private schools. An exodus of 275,000 students is simply not in the cards.

"And if that many students tried to move, it would bust the bank for vouchers. But of course, there are not enough private schools in the state to accommodate even 27,000 new students, let alone ten times that many.

"So benefits from vouchers only obtain with an impossibly large transfer of students out of the public schools, far more than budgeted for, far more than possible under any rational projection.

"This referendum is a lot of clucking for so small an egg.

"More likely, public schools along Utah’s Wasatch Front — and nowhere else in the state, because private schools are simply not available — will see less than a 1% transfer for vouchers. Poor students may try, but they will be unable to enroll in private schools without significant scholarships to make up the shortfall between the voucher and the actual tuition and fees, which are significantly more than vouchers in almost every case.

"School crowding will continue to be a crisis, as will teacher recruitment and retention. But the public, tired of these fruitless shouting matches, will not stand for the tax increases necessary to raise teacher salaries and recruit more teachers."

Friday, October 19, 2007

Utah and vouchers

It's been interesting to watch the voucher election in Utah unfold this year. There isn't a whole lot else going on in state elections of great interest.

Two things caught my attention today. One is a valuable blog from one who is pro-voucher but sat down and did the math for himself. It is refreshing to see a lack of rhetoric in this piece and I commend it to you.

You can find it here.

He wrote:

"Regretfully, I think I will be dropping my support of referendum 1 with the forlorned hope that the idea doesn't die permanently in this state. If this damages my credibility -- so be it. The idea is good, but the plan's execution has that 1 major flaw for me. This paradigm shift has not been an easy one for me to embrace."

This writer lost NO credibility with me. I admire anyone who will take a rational look at issues and tell the rest of us what he found.

The other event that I found was a group of GOP state legislators who stood up to explain their objection to the voucher program, based on facts, logic and data.

"I respectfully disagree with my Republican colleagues who support the flawed voucher law," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful. "Utah voters, especially Republican voters, need to hear from Republican lawmakers that this law has too many flaws and will cost too much money — money that could be spent in our public schools."

The article also reported:

While GOP lawmakers who support vouchers urged voters to read the two bills that could establish the voucher program, Allen said she also wants citizens to read the impartial voter information packet that "describes the costs and so-called savings associated with Referendum 1."

Seems to me that the voucher bill being voted on isn't universally supported, even by Republicans. And there sure seem to be a lot of questions about it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Vouchers increase taxes

The "fuzzy math" being used to convince Utahns to support Referendum 1 is enough to make anyone's head spin!

Now, the Utah Taxpayer's Association (an organization that has publicly supported vouchers all along) is trying to tell taxpayers that if vouchers are rejected, then there will be a tax increase because there will be more children to educate. Huh?

Well, let's break this down without their "fuzzy math" and rely instead on data that has REAL sources.

For one, yes, there is a huge enrollment increase anticipated. This is not news. The Utah State Office of Education projects that today's estimated 540,189 students in public schools will swell to 616,227 by 2012, and grow to 681,484 by 2016. (See the chart here.)

That is growth of 26%.

HOWEVER, the Legislative Fiscal Analysts, as reported here in the Deseret News, estimate that about 2% of Utah students will switch from public schools to voucher schools (the rest of the students who receive vouchers will be those entering kindergarten this year, or those already in private schools).

That won't make a significant difference in public school enrollment and certainly not enough to avoid figuring out how to pay for the increasing number of kids.

It is far more logical to conclude that if APPROVED vouchers will lead to a tax increase. Why?

Two reasons:

1) In five years, public schools will lose the little money they receive for voucher students. Yes, that's right. The so-called "extra money" for public schools GOES AWAY in five years. At that time, Utah's public schools could lose $46 million in state revenue. Where do you think they will turn to make up that lost revenue?

It's happened before. The Milwaukee voucher program has forced the local school board to INCREASE property taxes. Yes, that is INCREASE taxes, not decrease taxes. To pay for voucher students.

"For city property taxpayers, it is a lousy deal. For each child in MPS, the city taxpayer provides $1,954; for each child in a choice school, city taxpayers pay up to $2,925 - or $971 more for a child in a choice school than an MPS school." -- from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's report here.

2) Vouchers will cause a tax increase because state taxpayers will be paying an average $2,000 for voucher students who previously cost the state $0. Yes, that's right. Currently the state pays $0 for every student who attends private school. By the time the voucher program is fully phased in, every student in private school will be getting a voucher (this according to the impartial analysis in the Utah Voter Guide). Even those students who NEVER would have gone to public school will get a voucher.

This will cost Utah taxpayers $429 million between now and 2020. In 2020, the ANNUAL cost to educate voucher students will be $71 million, as reported in the Voter Guide:

"Based on certain assumptions, the Legislative Fiscal Analyst estimates that the Parent Choice in Education Program will cost the state:
• $5,500,000 during the Program’s first year;
• $71,000,000 during the Program’s 13th year, after all private school students in Utah have become eligible for a scholarship."

That is $71 million paid in ONE YEAR to educate voucher students who previously cost taxpayers $0 because they were in private school. And the state does NOT currently pay for all the students in private schools.

Plus, the costs will mount year after year as taxpayers bear the burden for students who, without vouchers, cost $0.

Taxpayers get it in the end because they will be paying for public schools and for voucher schools. Two systems. Two payments. More money from taxpayers.

Now that is NOT "fuzzy math."

Friday, October 5, 2007

ANOTHER entitlement?

Since I've been reading up on state news lately, it stuck me as odd that a Republican state such as Utah would support a universal voucher program.

I thought I was just misunderstanding the issue. I talked to a couple of friends about it, but they hadn't a clue what was going on in Utah. (One guy asked where Utah was, for crying out loud.)

Then one sent me a link today to a column in the Deseret News. In it, the author wonders how creation of an entitlement program such as the universal voucher law would comport with fiscally conservative Republican thinking.

I cut and paste it below, with all credits to the Deseret News and author Bob Bernick, Jr. You also can read it here.

GOP has taken odd stand on vouchers
By Bob Bernick Jr.Deseret Morning News
Published: October 5, 2007
The following column is not an endorsement of private school vouchers; neither is it an opposition statement on vouchers.
Rather, it is an examination of what I see as a very odd political stand taken by leading conservative Republicans in Utah, and why they may be taking that stand.
While others may certainly disagree, I see the private-school voucher movement as a classic government entitlement program. It is also a government redistribution of wealth, one that in reality may well help the more well-to-do among us (who can afford to send their children to private schools) at the cost of the least well-to-do among us (who can't afford, even with a bit of state taxes, to send their children to private schools).
In both areas, one would think that conservative Utah Republicans would be against both a new government entitlement program and against a redistribution of wealth.
Not so. The very base of the pro-voucher movement comes from conservative Republicans. To me, an odd development.
First, two definitions. According to Webster, entitlement means: A right to benefits specified by law. And redistribute means: To spread to other areas.
Well, HB148 — the main voucher bill passed by the 2007 Legislature — certainly meets those definitions.
If you have a child between certain ages (5 to 21) and you send that child to a qualifying private school (including schools run by a religion — like Judge Memorial Catholic High School) you are entitled to a tuition benefit. You get a benefit no matter how small or large your income.
A single mom making $30,000 a year would get $2,750 to send her lone child to a private school, while a millionaire family would get $500 to send its child to a private school. While the lower-income mom gets more money, both families get something.
HB148 would provide private-school vouchers of between $500 and $3,000 per child for 2007-08. And by law, those "scholarships" — in itself a strange use of the word, considering the entitlement payment has little to do with a student's performance in school, only that they attend and not get kicked out for failing grades or behavior — will increase by the same amount each year as the state's basic funding formula for public schools, the weighted pupil unit.
How does HB148 pay for vouchers? It takes money not from the Uniform School Fund — the public-school-leveling fund enriched by law from personal and business income taxes — but from the state's General Fund. Various taxes flow into the General Fund, but by far most of its monies come from the state sales tax.
The GOP backers of vouchers found a funding formula that does not directly take money away from public education, which is funded from the Uniform School Fund.
However, all Utahns pay sales tax — no matter how poor or how rich we are. Worse, from a tax regressivity perspective, Utah still places a small sales tax on unprepared food — our most basic commodity.
So, GOP legislators and Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (no Democrats voted for HB148) want to create a new government entitlement program that takes money away from all Utah citizens and gives it to a small group of citizens who send their children to private schools.
Thus, vouchers are, in my view, an entitlement program that redistributes wealth.
Smile from your grave, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
When U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, co-sponsored a new federal child health insurance program with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., at the Utah Republican Convention that year a resolution was passed by the conservative delegates that damned Hatch, saying CHIP was another big government socialist entitlement program. Hatch later addressed the convention shaming delegates with biblical references for opposing a new program that helped sick, poor kids. And I think CHIP was a fine idea — a worthy government entitlement program that redistributed wealth.
But apparently hard-core Utah Republicans can favor a new entitlement program passed by the Utah Legislature but oppose one passed by the federal government.
What's behind GOP lawmakers' support for vouchers? Well, they would say "family choice" is at the heart of their argument. Some children need a private school alternative, and the state should help in that.
But I believe it goes further. I see a deep-seated, almost irrational, hatred of the Utah Education Association — the main public education teacher union that year after year spends tens of thousands of dollars trying to defeat conservative GOP legislators. Pushing vouchers through the divided Legislature is clearly a slap in the eye to the UEA.
In recent years legislative Republicans have tried to harm UEA PAC funding — and succeeded in doing so for a while until overruled in federal court. And now Republicans are looking to change State Board of Education nonpartisan elections to make board candidates go through county or state party conventions, to win party nominations and pass partisan philosophical barriers.
It's an arrogance of power that says oppose us and we will make you pay.
In any case, citizens will decide whether we have private-school vouchers come Nov. 6. I say educate yourself on the advantages and disadvantages of vouchers before you vote — for there really are two sides to this issue.
But also understand that at the ballot box you will vote for or against a new government entitlement program that redistributes wealth.

© 2007 Deseret News Publishing Company All rights reserved

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The threat of the third party

"Alarmed at the possibility that the Republican Party might pick Rudolph Giuliani as its presidential nominee despite his support for abortion rights, a coalition of influential Christian conservatives is threatening to back a third-party candidate. Participants said the group included James C. Dobson of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council; Richard A. Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer; and dozens of other politically oriented conservative Christians." - New York Times.

Well, they're going over the edge again. It's still a long way until the general election of 2008. Are we in a permanent campaign cycle these days? Is that what it takes to get the attention of voters? Or, perhaps I should say "potential" voters since turnout is so poor.