Editor's note: In an effort to cut through the emotional rhetoric surrounding the voucher issue, we solicited a leader on each side to submit their best arguments, then allowed them to rebut one another. Their arguments and rebuttals appear in the related links here.
Most Utah voters realize the wisdom of doing everything possible to make Utah's public schools even stronger. Consider the following five points of analysis showing details of Utah's fundamentally flawed voucher law with its many loopholes and unanswered questions:
The voucher law provides little accountability
The voucher law provides no significant oversight of schools accepting voucher students. They may: discriminate against students based on religion, ability to pay, disabilities and English proficiency; avoid any performance audit requirements and financial reporting requirements; choose not to dismiss teachers for criminal conduct; hire teachers who do not have a college degree or teachers who are not licensed; ignore coursework and attendance standards public schools are required to meet. Voucher schools are not even required to be accredited, as are public schools.
Voucher schools lack availability
Most everyday Utah families would not be able to access voucher schools. According to the Office of Legislative Fiscal Analyst voucher school tuitions average $8,000 per child per year. For a family with four children, the $24,000 in additional tuition would make voucher schools clearly unaffordable. Even if one goes to a school with lower tuition fees it is unlikely low-income families would be able to pay the fee, provide transportation and lunch, and pay other private school costs even if they received the maximum $3,000 voucher.
As compared to 987 public and charter schools, only 138 private schools operate in all of Utah. Of the 138 private schools, only 75 are eligible to or are choosing to accept vouchers. The National Center for Education Statistics lists 56 "regular" private elementary and secondary schools in Utah. In fact, more than half the counties in Utah have no private schools at all.
Vouchers will have high costs for the taxpayer
Based on projections provided by the official "Impartial Analysis" in the Utah Voter Guide, vouchers would cost money not save money as some proponents suggest. By the 12th year of the voucher experiment, subsidizing voucher schools would cost the state nearly $71 million a year. Over a 13-year period, vouchers would cost the state $429 million.
If invested in public schools, $429 million could pay the salary for 7,322 teachers or 23,765 paraeducators for a year. If you use the one-year cost of $71 million in the final year of implementation, every school in Utah could obtain at least one new teacher to help reduce class size. If we wanted to invest in materials, $429 million would pay for 582,089 computers or more than 10,725,000 textbooks.
My examination reveals no state that has implemented a voucher program has saved money. Some cite the experience in Milwaukee as evidence of voucher success. I have been to Milwaukee, and I have visited the schools under the program. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported in February 2007 that the Milwaukee voucher program would cost taxpayers $110,517,000 for an estimated 17,000 students. As the voucher program there has grown, more money has been diverted from public schools to voucher schools. The school district had to raise its property taxes to offset the loss of funds.
Bottom line: The figures of the impartial analysis (provided by the Legislature's own fiscal analyst) are the best estimate and conclude the costs of vouchers will be much greater than any purported savings.
Vouchers will not improve performance or reduce class size
While Referendum 1 proponents suggest student performance improves in voucher schools, research does not support this assertion. A 2006 U.S. Department of Education study of Washington, D.C.'s voucher program and a 2001 U.S. General Accounting Office study of Cleveland and Milwaukee's voucher schools found no significant differences between private school and public school students in academic achievement.
On Oct. 3, 2007, an Economic Policy Institute study of the effects of vouchers on performance in the other public schools in Milwaukee found contrary to the assertions of voucher proponents private voucher schools have had no positive effect on their public counterparts.
Further, proponents also claim their flawed voucher law will benefit poor and urban students, but an Oct. 10 report from the Center on Education Policy found these students do no better in voucher schools than public schools.
And contrary to proponents' claims, vouchers will not significantly lower class size in public schools. Class size is determined by a formula based on the ratio of teachers to students in the school building at the beginning of the year. Teachers are hired based on those numbers. If many students leave with a voucher, the school will simply lose teachers. If only a few students from the school leave, resulting in the loss of a teacher, some class sizes could increase. Class sizes would increase if students leave for a private school and decide midyear to return to the public school.
Neither performance nor class size would be improved by this flawed voucher law.
Utahns are wiser investing in our public schools
Instead of giving taxpayer dollars to unaccountable voucher schools, we should be investing in our public schools. Ninety-six percent of Utah's children attend public schools, and yet, our state ranks last in the nation in spending per student and has the most overcrowded class sizes in the country.
Despite these challenges, Utah's public schools are serving our children very well. The proportion of Utah public school fourth-graders who scored at the highest two levels in reading in the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased from 33 percent to 42 percent between 1998 and 2007. Math scores in the top categories went from 20 percent in 1992 to 43 percent in 2007. And Utah has the third highest percentage of graduating seniors passing AP tests in the nation.
Instead of diverting nearly a half-billion taxpayer dollars for vouchers, Utahns should invest that money in reducing class sizes, providing textbooks and supplies, and enhancing teachers' salaries to make our public schools better.
Utahns for Public Schools represents parents, teachers, public servants and others interested in quality education provided to all Utah children. When it comes to providing every Utah child with a quality education, we believe, as do most Americans, our greatest hope for success is investing in research-proven education reforms. These include the things parents and teachers know will make a difference in the classroom, such as smaller class sizes, investment in teacher development programs, and increasing the pay of effective teachers. Focusing on these types of reforms will bring far greater success than diverting tax dollars to unaccountable private voucher schools.
Kim R. Burningham is chairman of the Utah State Board of Education, a former member of the Utah House of Representatives and a retired public school teacher.