Monday, November 05, 2007

Are Utah's Public Schools Really That Good?

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.


Frank Staheli said...

I particularly appreciated this paragraph from the NYSun article:

The city's largest choice school, St. Anthony's, now teaches more than 1,000 children, virtually all poor and nearly all from families that don't speak English. Far from turning away children who face these added hurdles, it has filled its building with them and bought a second. This is to accommodate demand, says Principal Ramon Cruz, from parents who felt public schools weren't doing a good enough job.

And the extrapolation that maintaining the status quo is not nearly so much about building a strong America than it is about retaining current privileges

Those favoring choice start with the premise that it's good if parents can choose the kind of school their children will learn in. This plays better. You can say it without flinching. Insisting the public schools must hang on to every kid whose parents are too poor to escape sounds suspiciously like special pleading from a teachers union desperate to retain the power that let it win double-dip pensions.

Which, in fact, is the case.

With a very few well-reasoned exceptions, opposition to vouchers in Utah is because of FEAR.

Jesse Harris said...

I haven't understood the double-speak from day one. Maybe what they mean is "yes, our schools need work. I just don't like your solution." That's much more honest than trying to have it both ways.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jesse, I appreciate your input. And, to be honest, I have rarely gotten the two different arguments from the same person — at least not during a single conversation.

HomeSymphony said...

I agree whole-heartedly that our schools need reform. They are in pretty sad shape. A high school diploma, and a college degree for that matter, don't say what they used to. It isn't that difficult to jump through the hoops to obtain them. What concerns me is the effect this may have on private schools. Of course this will help public schools in the short term, but it will also bring private schools down. The restrictions are many, and the number will grow. Our public and "private" schools will look more and more alike as time goes on. I am too protective of the rights of truly private education to be very comfortable with this bill. Schools that choose not to accept the vouchers will have a hard time competing,and there is the concern that they will eventually become practically nonexistent. Also, the Netherlands voucher program, which has strengthened the public system, has indeed sacrificed the "private" sector's expansion and innovation as a result of all the regulations placed upon them.
Then I have a concern that we as a people don't think we should have to work and sacrifice to receive a great education. The best education will not come from government hand-outs. This stifles growth.

Cameron said...

I actually did get into a discussion where I felt the opposing viewpoint did try to use both arguments at the same time, though I don't believe it was intentional or sinister in nature. When I questioned her about it, the argument was reframed into "yes, there may be problems with public ed, but we need to focus on tweaking the status quo rather than discuss vouchers."

Anonymous said...

Your observation about the contradictory arguments used by those seeking to both maintain current funding to public schools and to add more funding are applied by liberals to many other programs.

For example, Social Security. Rather than fix the way social security is financed, the Democrat's "solution" is just to take more money from working people and put it into the existing cracked pot.

The proposals to regulate activities in order to "decrease global warming" will create the same kind of situation. If there is no observable decrease in global warming, the demand will be to make more sacrifices. If there appears to be any mitigation in global warming, the demand will be "Look how great it's working, we must mnake more sacrifices".

Welfare was like that for decades. It was only the political clout of the "contract with America" class of Republicans who took over the House of Representatives in 1994 that was able to force a change to the self-perpetuating cycle of pouring more and more resources into bad solutions to complex problems.

Many government programs are like that. A problem is noted. A government program to "solve" the problem is created. The more diffuse the connection between the problem and the "solution", the better, because these programs are not meant to end the problems, but to create clients among the voters who are dependent on the government to ameliorate their problem.

In these terms, the ideal liberal health care program is not one that actually cures and prevents disease, but one that dispenses pain killers and marijuana along with support payments.

If someone invented a system by which children could absorb all the knowledge they need through a home computer in one hour five times a week, it could not get funded because the program would decrease dependence on government and would not create a class of employees who would vote for members of Congress and presidents who sustain the program that pays them.

To a certain extent, the construction of nuclear ICBMs was just such a program. Building nuclear missiles could never "solve" the problem of the Soviet nuclear threat, because the USSR could do the same thing, and for every new Soviet ICBM, the US had to make two more to ensure that the new Soviet missile could be taken out. Thus the idea of a "missile gap" was promoted by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, and the massive Minuteman ICBM program came about in the early 1960s, which made Utah and its Thiokol and Hercules rocket plants, along with their employees and the Utah economy, dependents of the Federal nuclear weapons program. The problem was never solvable by this program, so it created an infinite demand for funding.

The genius of President Reagan was in interrupting the dynamics of the nuclear missile buildup. First, he terminated the massive MX missile program that had proposed paving the Utah and Nevada deserts with rail lines carrying MX missiles in random movements among thousands of bunkers. He then made a major investment in systems to defend against ICBM attacks on the US and its allies. Such defensive systems are not primary threats to Soviet missiles, and are absolutely no threat to Soviet populations. Reagan decreased the incentive to build more Soviet ICBMs. The idea that the Soviets would "simply" build many more rockets to overwhelm a defensive system did not work because the Soviets could not motivate their stretched economy to create costly nuclear missiles that would kill more Americans but not decrease the threat to Russians. Reagan then offered to Gorbachev a drastic mutual cut in nuclear missiles, that made sense, since most of the targets for each side were the other side's missiles.

In the public school scenario, the analog of the Soviet Union is the UEA. Vouchers are a good step toward breaking the cycle that pushes public schools asymptotically toward infinite spending on education. But clearly, to overcome the UEA opposition to vouchers, there needs to be a direct incentive that will counteract the very direct financial incentive to teachers and the union to maintain the status quo, even though it is bad for public education.

Perhaps there needs to be a provision in any new voucher law that earmarks the funds saved from a student moving to private schools for incentives to the teachers, both collective and individual. First, guarantees that no teacher will be unemployed due to decreases in overall public school enrollment, at least for a period of time such as a couple of years. The net result will be fewer students per teacher. The money will NOT be allowed to go for better football teams or fancier offices for school district officials. It will go, first, to teachers. This will mitigate the impact on the UEA as well, which will remove much of the incentive that motivates the union and its members. Second, the extra funds should be allowed to be used to increase teacher salaries, both across the board and for teachers with more in-demand skills (such as science and math).

If the program's finances are structured so that the people dependent on public schools are not as threatened by the change, the opposition could decrease enough to make vouchers feasible, just as the nuclear superpowers were able to end a decades-long stalemate that had locked the world into an infinite ascending spiral of nuclear arms growth.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Ember, your comments strike a chord with me. Look at the mess we've made of our medical system because 50+% of the system is now government funded. I myself have argued that we need to de-socialize our medical system to improve it (including both private and public socialistic elements).

On the other hand, medicine and K-12 education are not precisely analogous. Society long ago agreed to socialize education funding. Nobody is talking about undoing that, but the debate could go in that direction if parents continue to be locked out of the current system. Instruments such as vouchers and education tax credits can crack the unresponsive monolithic leviathan. Would doing this undermine private schools? That is an argument worthy of consideration.

Ray, your points on government programs that create a client class are quite appropriate. I very much appreciate your inclusion of the discussion of corporate welfare. What about Ember's concerns about damaging the private school system? Would government money going to private schools create a client class? These are valid concerns.

Anonymous said...

Public Schools really went down hill when the republicans got control over them