Monday, October 15, 2007

Vouchers, The Arguments

It's been a while since I have posted something about politics, and with Doran Barton and Jesse Stay posting about their views on private school vouchers, I thought I would post my concerns as well.

The Voucher System: Funding and Class Size
Both Doran and Jesse have made good points in their arguments, outlining what the voucher system is designed to do. Basically, if your family is eligible, then the State will subsidize your tuition up to $3000.00. It is dependent on your income, of course, and the cost is higher than most private schools, but the argument is that students will be in a better learning environment and therefore benefit from the voucher. This goes back to the whole argument of public vs. private schools, which I am not in a position to contend. Ultimately, the idea is that class sizes will go down while school funding will go up for public schools.

The Problems
One argument for the voucher system is that the Public system is too strained to manage the students they have now, and will break in the near future. Therefore, those that can afford public schools should head in that direction now to relieve the stress, and those that can almost afford public schools should make the move as soon as possible with vouchers. Of course, the assumption is being made that students that can already afford private school are not already going, and that those that just barely can't make private school will be able to get the money they need from the voucher system to do so.

Supposedly the income requirements will keep those that are already attending private school from getting the voucher, and thereby taking funding from public schools without lowering costs or class sizes in public schools. Can there be a guarantee on that? I don't think anyone can say for sure that the process can protect funding for public schools from going into the negative.

So what do we need in order for this to work? Safeguards. But then, we will have students that have been going to private schools for years lose out on vouchers when their newly enrolled peers now become subsidized. Is that fair? Absolutely not! So if we issue vouchers to the students that have been going to private school for years, then we start taking money from the public schools without the promised class size reduction or funding increase per student. Ultimately, property taxes will need to be raised to balance out the difference, making vouchers almost negligible in their effect, while increasing the tax burden on property owners.

Is there any easy way to make this work? Only if private schools lower their tuition, at which point they are no longer a money-making proposition for investors, and have less available funds to spend on their students. At that point, they become a public school like facility (funding wise), but without any requirements for accreditation or teacher qualifications. Which brings up the second concern I have.

School Vouchers: Public Funding of Nonregulated Private Institutions
I voted for my county representative specifically because he voted against spending county funds to bring a financial boom, i.e. the Real Salt Lake Stadium, to a single city, i.e. Sandy. I saw no benefit for my city in West Valley, though my public funds would have gone toward the prosperity of Sandy. If funds are going to be paid from public coffers, they need to be spent for the benefit of all that pay into those coffers in one way or another.

So, the main question I have is whether or not public funds, i.e. property taxes being used to pay for vouchers, are being spent on organizations that benefit the community as a whole. There are two ways private educational institutions can benefit the community: either by providing outstanding citizenry that in turn benefit the whole (which we all hope happens regardless), or by providing some sort of monetary benefit to the public that will justify the whole.

How can that be quantified? It's a good question. Public education has been unable to make such quantified statements, nor has any other institution of learning with the exception of accredited Universities and Colleges. They can provide verified, direct benefit to a community based on the requirements of tenure, student educational rigor, and impact in the existing fields of study. So a big question is whether or not K-12 institutions should receive public funds without some sort of accreditation program in place.

Public schools have a form of accreditation through the State requirements. For those that are unfamiliar with the public school system, it is a State run institution. This is the same for every State out there, as education remains State governed as a result of State sovereignty. Is it a perfect system? Of course not! Just like every other system out there, there are those that try to squeak by with just the basic requirements. But overall, it has been a strong system with students from this State being well prepared to move ahead into the world.

To argue that teachers are afraid of losing their jobs and being out-competed against by private schools is not based on any form of fact in my opinion, as public schools are scrambling to get qualified teachers as it is. To suggest that teachers will be fired during a shortage is just not logical, because it would aggravate the teacher shortage currently, and remove any "benefits" of smaller class sizes by requiring fewer teachers to teach more students, and make null any promise of better pay raises for teachers based on the supposed increase in funds available. No, I can't believe that teachers are really afraid to lose their jobs to the private school industry. After all, they have a teaching certificate, where many private school instructors do not. That brings me to another sticking point of mine: accreditation.

Private schools are, as far as I am aware, completely free of any regulation outside of the funds coming in. Anyone who knows of a private K-12 accreditation program, please let me know! So, without any type of standard required, not even the State onus placed on public schools, they are pretty much free to teach what they would like to teach. Teachers can be anyone, not necessarily someone with a teaching certificate. Is this necessarily bad? Not really, because it can afford a lot of teaching variance, freedom with curriculum in a fast-paced world, and also allow for people to teach that have advanced degrees that do not want to spend the money to become certified as a teacher.

That being said, it's also disconcerting to think that there are no standards set globally as to the curriculum that is being taught, the level of education the teacher has, or the teacher's understanding of educational psychology. How do I know that the instructor is teaching with a constructivist method, instead of a behaviorist method? How can I be sure that my child is being prepared for the world, both through college and beyond? I can audit the classes, but considering how many private schools are out there it would take a couple of years to find the one I am happy with.

So, that's another sticking point I have with the voucher system. Public funding for non-regulated programs. Of course, the argument could be made that these are not really public funds, as these students will not be attending the schools for which the funds pay. But my argument to that is: Once you pay your taxes, the money belongs to the State, not you. You can't claim it is your money if it's already been paid to the State, regardless of what is funded.

Is There a Solution?
Anyway, those are my arguments. Nothing really new, since both sides have mentioned each grievance. Ultimately I don't really see Vouchers as "fixing" the funding problem with our public schools. Private schools will become overwhelmed with students as well, and we will be back in the same fire, but with a bigger problem.

Personally, I think that web-based learning can fix a lot of the class size issue, making classes hybrid in attendance (part time in class, part time online). Teachers will have fewer students in the classroom, while still being able to provide personal one-on-one coaching for those that really need it. Of course, it will mean more education for teachers, network facilities for the State schools, and possibly expand to provide curriculum guidelines for private and home school students if they so desire.

As far as providing public funds by way of vouchers to private schools, the big question I have is how can I guarantee that private school vouchers are going to an institution that has some sort of academic rigor? My son will only have one childhood, how can I be sure that he will be getting the most out of education should he go to a private school? These questions have yet to be answered to my satisfaction, and until they are answered I don't think I can support a private school voucher referendum.

2 comments:

Thad said...

Jeremy,
You are showing, by your post, that you haven't read the Voter Information pamphlet. It is available online at http://elections.utah.gov/ The law passed by the Utah state legislature provides a few interesting "safeguards."
It provides that vouchers are not available for any student enrolled in a private school on January 1, 2007. It also says that there are certain restrictions that private schools must meet to be able to accept vouchers. One of these restrictions is that Private Schools must have certified teachers.
There was also a subsequent law that was passed by the legislature that provides mitigation money to public schools so that your fear of "lost money" will not happen.
I highly recommend reading through the pamphlet.

Jeremy Robb said...

Thank you Thad! I was not aware that there was more information available! I'll read through it. ^_^