Tuesday, October 02, 2007

What's with Utah School Vouchers?

In case you don’t live in Utah, don’t follow national news, and/or live under a rock, you’re probably aware of the Utah school voucher program that’s being voted on for repeal – otherwise known as Referendum One.

Basically, the voucher law created a program where people can apply for assistance, in the form of a tuition reimbursement, to send their K-12 kids to a private school. Depending on financial need, it can be anywhere from $500 to $3,000. If I remember right, the money comes from a special fund, not the state’s general education fund. I could be wrong on this point. There were a couple of different proposals that got voted on.

SoYouWanna.com has posted quite a nice series of articles laying out the arguments, and the rebuttals, for both sides of the school voucher argument, and it’s worth the read.

This state law has received a lot of national attention from groups both pro-voucher, and con. It’s interesting to see just where the money for each side’s campaign is coming from, which Utah legislator received financial support from which group, and which way they voted.

Except for the amount of money and interest, there are no surprises as to the results. Pro-public school money went to the Democrats, who voted against the voucher bill, and the pro-voucher money went to the Republicans, who voted for it.

What was surprising to me was that the pro-voucher side actually got more money than the no-voucher side. Maybe that’s why it initially passed by a very tight margin – only one vote.

Most likely, I’ll be voting for referendum one. Overall I think it’s a good idea. The argument that is takes money away from public schools is bogus. Yes, this has been funded to the tune of $500 million, and that money could go to public schools. It could just have easily gone to public transportation, health care, or any number of projects.

Here’s some other interesting numbers for you. Utahans pay $7,500 dollars a year for each child in public school. We will only pay up to $3,000 a year for a child using the vouchers. That’s a net savings of $4,500+ per child to the tax payer.

'm not above spending more money on education, I just want to make sure that it's being used to teach children, not line the pockets of school administrators. From my perspective, Utah's schools haven't done a good job of using the money they've been given. For too long they’ve held a virtual monopoly on education, and I believe that has made them complacent, and bloated. There are far more administrators per teacher today than there were twenty years ago, and far less teachers per student. Administrators make more money and provide less direct impact on the students than a teacher does. Why do we need so darned many? I’m suspicious that we don’t.

One of the downsides to the voucher law is that it doesn’t help everyone. Yes, it’s targeted to the poor, but most private schools charge more for tuition per year than this bill allows for. That’s still more money out of pocket for the parents. That alone will keep most people from being able to use it. I see the middle class as benefiting the most from this bill.

There is room for contesting this in the courts, as well. It can be considered as government money going to fund religious institutions when it comes to religious schools. This is what struck down the previous voucher bill in Florida. Utah doesn’t have such a law, but the U.S. does. While I might argue the interpretation, personally, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld similar interpretations of the First Amendment.

What I’m hoping this bill will do is force our public school systems to rise up and improve their services. If they know they’ll be competing with private schools for students, they’ll need to deliver a better product.

Wherever you stand on the issue, I suspect the public vote on Referendum One will be a close one. Even though I’m in favor of the bill passing, I’m just fine with the idea that this got yanked from the legislature and put into the hands of the general public.

That’s where the choice belongs, anyway.

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