Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Elections Mean Something

I am used to being a contrarian when it comes to elections. That is, I frequently find myself in disagreement with the majority of voters. I often think they’re wrong. And they clearly often think that I’m wrong. That’s OK. That’s how elections are supposed to work.

I actually did get matched up with the majority on exactly one of the items on yesterday’s ballot. The one guy whose sign I had in my front yard was elected to my city council. Still, only about 38% of registered voters in my city bothered to vote. And that was considered an extremely high turnout. Turnout would undoubtedly have been much less had not the controversial voucher referendum been on the ballot.

In Weber County, where I live, voters may have narrowly approved a sales tax increase (50.36%-49.64%, a margin of 281 votes out of 39,295). But as of this morning, three precincts were still outstanding and there are yet absentee ballots to be counted. So we’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

School vouchers went down big time. With 96.64% of precincts counted, the spread was 62.19% against to 36.81% in favor. This SL-Trib article reports that Patrick Byrne, the principle funder of the pro-voucher side, issued a sour grapes whine that the referendum was “a "statewide IQ test" that Utahns failed.” Note to Mr. Byrne: Calling the people whose support you need to further your cause stupid is probably a good way to reduce support even further. The many Utahns that voted against vouchers are certainly feeling vindicated as they are hearing Mr. Byrne’s sound bite today.

The Trib article also quotes state School Board Chairman Kim Burningham as saying, “We believe this sends a clear message. It sends a message that Utahns believe in, and support, public schools.” This belief is a fine example of a logical fallacy. The vote may indeed mean what Mr. Burningham suggests. However, it may also mean that, despite the fact that people think our education system stinks, they disagree that vouchers are the best way to remedy the situation.

However, one thing is now abundantly clear. The UEA has functionally demonstrated that it is the most powerful political entity in Utah. The UEA and its fellow travelers pulled out all the stops on killing the voucher law passed by the legislature earlier this year, and they won — big time. The UEA will come into the 2008 legislative season with more political power than it has ever had.

Expect to see the governor and the legislature led around like cattle. Oh, not every legislator will kowtow to the UEA, but I would be very surprised if the overall legislature didn’t act like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UEA. This does not bode well for Utah’s school children or for Utahn’s in general. As Rep. John Dougall (R-AF) reports in this post, the UEA “opposes improving academic achievement.” Its practice is to stonewall and ignore when ideas are solicited for ways to improve, because the UEA is invested in the status quo.

Rep. Dougall writes, “To talk about improvement would require an openness to admit that some things can be done better. It would require a discussion about change and the UEA opposes change.” He says that “the UEA takes the approach that if you are not with them 100% of the time, then you are against them.”

Regardless of whether voters rejected vouchers because they believe the solution was flawed or because they are anesthetized into thinking that Utah’s schools are fantastic, the result is that the UEA will be even less incentivized to be part of the solution to Utah’s education problems.

Another lesson is pointed out by LaVarr Webb (here). He says that voucher proponents lost vital ground early in the campaign when they allowed “the education establishment [to] successfully fram[e] the debate as pro-public school vs. anti-public school.” Webb says, “An important political lesson here is to never allow your opponent to define you early in a campaign.”

Jesse Harris discusses a number of other flaws with the pro-voucher campaign in this post. The problems, he says, began with the legislative process. Years of compromise amounted to only minor tweaking. The result of the narrowly-passed bill was a law that was easy to demagogue. This process has unwittingly empowered the UEA; the very establishment voucher supporters sought to diminish.

We are a society awash in polls. Most polls don’t really change things. But elections have impact and meaning. They actually change things. For better or worse, yesterday’s election will change the dynamics of Utah politics.


Jesse Harris said...

As I suspected, it didn't take long for the results of the election to be spun. Good job, Kim, for proving my worst suspicions about how this vote would be used.

That One Guy said...

I agree... the results, in MY mind, showed that we generally agreed that Patrick Byrne is a person whose brain isn't often connected very well to his mouth. Financial reporters knew this, the SEC knows this, and now this state knows this.

And as far as the Leg. being a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UEA...

How can this be, when the Legislature is already a wholly-owned subsidiary of the LDS Church??

"Too many masters..."


Tom said...

I appreciate your comments about how we should interpret the voucher vote.

I disagree, however, that the UEA will "own" the legislature--there is a good deal of anti-UEA bias on the hill, and I don't see that changing.

In an article today Rep. Curtis suggested many Leg actions will be regarded as "punitive." He's part right--many of the roads the Leg has already started down have already been cast in that light. I don't think vouchers will change that.

Jeremy said...

No one should be surprised that citizens in Utah don't want vouchers. This discussion has beeing going on for more than 20 years now and the numbers of Utahns for and against public funds for private schools haven't changed significantly. Utahns want our public schools to work better...we don't think the answer is to turn the job over to private schools.

I don't think the results of this election put UEA in the driver seat. On the contrary if legislators actually do want to improve our public schools they'll take UEA on every chance they get. Merit pay for teachers should be their first target. Intra-district school choice should also be considered together with studies on how much savings taxpayers will experience from year-round schooling. UEA is opposed to each of these proposals and I don't think they have the support of most Utahns on these issues.

Now is the time for legislators in Utah to act like adults and work towards fixing the system we have...not waging a pointless war with the teacher's union over an issue that their constituents clearly don't support.

Democracy Lover said...

Is it not possible that the people of Utah are increasingly aware that privatizing essential services removes the ability for the public to hold anyone accountable, and rations services based on the ability to pay.

Sounds like a victory for the people of Utah! I congratulate you for having such an intelligent citizenry in your beautiful state.

Raymond Takashi Swenson said...

To Democracy Lover: Providing food is an essential service, and so are water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, and telecommunications services. For historical reasons, in cities we have water and sewer services that are publicly owned, while natural gas and telecommunications are privately owned. Electricity providers are a mixed bag, with publicly owned generators associated with dams and some nuclear power plants, on a scale from the City of Idaho Falls to the Bonneville Power Administration and TVA, while the rest, along with transmission lines and retail service, privately owned but tightly regulated. Then there is food production and distribution, which is overwhelmingly private, and public entities become involved mainly as retailers for prisons, the military, and schools.

All of these are services that are vital to our health and wellbeing. They are a mixed bag of public and private sources. Whether changing from private to public or public to private production and distribution makes sense or not depends on the nature of each service, and the degree to which individual needs and preferences differ. A couple of decades ago, the virtual monopoly on telecommunications held by AT&T was broken up into regional phone companies. The new technology of cell phones made it much easier to create the infrastructure for a competing private telephone system. Cable television systems went into direct competition with telephone companies for land-line communications, and satellite and local broadcast systems offer another alternative provider for internet service and therefore telecommunications.

The proliferation of telecommunications systems and modes is remarkable for maintaining compatibility between physically very different technologies, facilitated by the digital nature of modern communications. Allowing competition has advanced and enhanced the quality, volume and diversity of services available.

Education is essentially a communication-based service. Classic classroom teaching involves books, videos, sound recordings, charts, and the opportunity to ask questions and to be queried back to test your learning. Now that information is available through the internet and on computer media like CDs and DVDs, there is literally nothing that can be learned in a classroom that cannot be learned at home. the primary limit is the guidance of the teacher in sifting through the infinite information and selecting what is more important and appropriate to the learner at the time. But a parent who did well in high school and has taken college courses can certainly guide a child through the high school level of understanding.

Since home schooling can duplicate the educational, if not the social, value of public schools, private schools can do both. Public schools are not inherently superior in providing education services. As I have pointed out many times, the actual means that a public school uses to provide education are identical to the means used by private schools: Paying teachers, buying textbooks, paper, desks, computers, instructional videos, providing a physical shelter, and heating and lighting it, are all accomplished by BUYING the same goods and services in the private markets. You could convert a public school to a private school by contracting with a nonprofit company to operate it, with the same budget, and teacher salaries and benefits. The private company management would replace the school district bureaucracy, but everything else could be exactly the same. If the private company did not perform satisfactorily, the school board could hire a different contractor the next year. This is how the Department of Energy has operated its nuclear research and production facilities for decades.

Now suppose that the private company is owned by the teachers. They could operate it as a nonprofit organization, with the tax exemptions that entails. A charter school is almost identical to that.

Or they might organize as a for-profit organization, that is able to reduce the costs of education through various changes to the way education services are delivered, resulting in a profit distributed to the teachers. Some of the newer DOE contracts are structured like that.

In the real world, there is nothing inherently superior about public providers of services over private ones. We have to examine the service we want and how the public versus private ownership and control of various aspects of the process of producing and delivering the service can affect its effectiveness. Thus we have military services that are tightly run by the government, but even military bases hire private companies to provide security services at installations, as well as other services like laundries and kitchens.

Education is plainly a service that can be provided effectively through private organizations, and always has been. At the college level, private organizations are a significant portion of the providers of education. They do not have less racial or ethnic diversity, and they increase the religious and philosophical diversity. They offer smaller campuses with smaller classes rather than the large lectures that are common in public universities. Many of the leading colleges in the nation and world are in the private sector, and many others are publicly run. Programs like government grants and loans to students, and veterans education benefits, channel government funds through private persons into private colleges. Nothing is wrong with that diverse system for college education. And there is no moral or economic or educational reason it cannot work at the level of high schools, and if there, then junior highs, and if there, in elementary schools.

Perhaps next time a voucher proposal is offered to the public, it can be better understood if it is called a "GI Bill for kids." Because that is exactly how it would operate. When the GI Bill was created, Congress did not mandate that West Point and Annapolis establish new campuses, and veterans be forced to attend them. It offered the funds and let them pick their own colleges.

y-intercept said...

Raymond. That was a great reply.

If education was an essential service (something we needed to survive); then half then half the children in the state would be dead.

They have a word for times when the government takes over essential services like providing food. It is called famine.

The fact that Utah has a monoculture with 96% of people in public education simply means that we have a population of dullards who have difficulty competing on the global stage.