School choice opponents regularly intone that Utah schools are fantastic, and that we should avoid doing anything that would ‘hurt’ them. I must say that many of my kids’ teachers have been fantastic. Some have been nearly superhuman. Some have been — well — much less so. But often, even the best teachers are prevented from serving the kids as well as they could by a lethargic bureaucratic system.
Reality can be a hard thing to face. Utah’s public schools are not, in fact, as wonderful as all the rhetoric would suggest. Oh, they look alright when you compare them with the national average. But when you compare them with states with a similar demographic profile, the picture doesn’t look so rosy.
This Utah Foundation report found that “Utah is the lowest-achieving state in its overall demographic peer group.” The report says, “States with similar student poverty levels, and ethnic profiles score much higher than Utah in 8th grade math, reading, and science tests administered through the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).” Similar problems were found for 3rd, 5th, and 11th grade performance.
Comparing Utah schools with the national average is not a very accurate measure. It’s kind of an apples-to-oranges comparison. When you actually compare apples to apples — when you compare Utah schools to those in states with similar demographics — Utah is THE WORST!
This WJS article (requires subscription to read full article) reports that “Utah's children may not excel in math or English, but their teachers are very good at instructing them in how to run a political campaign. As 2007 achievement test data show another disappointing year for the state's children, the teachers union is running a multi-million-dollar campaign to insulate itself from competition.”
And here is where the counter argument comes into play. When the reality of the performance of Utah’s schools comes up, opponents of school choice then say that the problem is that our public schools need more money. (More money is ALWAYS the answer, of course.) They argue that we shouldn’t do anything that could take money away from our public schools.
So, Big Brother advocates basically want to have it both ways. Our schools are so great that we don’t want to take money from them. But they are also so bad that we can’t afford to take money from them. So, no matter what, it would be bad to reduce public school funding in any way, right? Perhaps it should be expected that such a contradictory argument would not seem problematic for many people educated in Utah’s public schools.
Here’s the blunt reality. We are in last place in the school funding race with other states (despite spending more than 250% per student in inflation-adjusted dollars than we did 30 years ago). We’re not keeping up with the Joneses. Given Utah’s high birth rate and average income rate, this situation is not going to change. We’re about maxed out on the amount of blood we can squeeze from the taxpayer turnip. But whether we like it or not, we will add students at a much higher rate than we will add income tax revenues over the next couple of decades. Thus, we will soon hit a point where there will be a continually decreasing amount of public funding available per student.
How do you increase education investment when the available sources are tapped out? Answer: you get some people to volunteer to pay more into the education system. I’m not talking about the public education system, but the overall education system. After all, we should be concerned more about whether a child receives a proper education than whether that education occurs in a government-run facility.
Vouchers would incentivize more parents to volunteer to pay extra out of their pockets for their children’s education. The hope (and let’s face it; despite all of the studies, it’s just a hope) is that enough parents would do this to relieve the funding pressure the state is about to experience. While this would result in public schools getting less than the whole education funding pie, the pie would be bigger and the actual amount spent per student would increase.
As has been found in other areas where vouchers have been tried, parental involvement would increase in both the public and private schools in the system, and educational quality per student would increase. (See related NY Sun article.)
The power brokers in the current education system are deathly afraid, not just of vouchers, but of anything that would disrupt the status quo and break up their monopoly. Clearly we need to do something about the low quality of Utah’s schools. Do we believe the current power brokers’ suggestion that just doing more of what we are currently doing is the answer? Or do we take a bold step forward into improving education for all students? You get to decide — tomorrow.