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Saturday, October 6, 2007
Another Voucher Meeting

Voucher opponents didn't bring their "A game."


I am adult, politically and chronologically. There are many people with whom I disagree politically, but whom I have no difficulty respecting personally, intellectually, and even politically. I try to respect -- if somewhat provisionally -- opponents whom I do not know well enough to know whether they're respectable. I try to treat with respect even those whom I have learned not to respect.

According to a recent Fox13 poll, about half of Utah voters oppose vouchers. I'm sure many in that half are quite respectable in every way. In fact, I already know and respect some of them. But the voucher opponents who are out making the arguments are not making this respect thing easy. They're fumbling so badly that they may be hurting their own cause. Surely someone on that side of the issue can make sensible arguments clearly and logically! But that's not what I'm seeing so far at the local level.

I don't mean the nut cases, like State PTA Commissioner Ronda Rose, who, as Oak Norton reported over the weekend, sent out an e-mail containing this nutty and inadequately punctuated statement:

Keep in mind that by their fruits they shall be known and the more I learn about these "parent [sic] for choice" the more I know they are from Satan.

Perhaps Ms. Rose reads my blog and knows that, earlier this very year, I, a voucher proponent, actually voted for Satan's Plan. At least I intended to, before the vote was cancelled. Come to think of it, she probably doesn't know that. But I gather she wouldn't be surprised.

The Meeting

Wednesday evening I did something I rarely do: I attended a PTA (PTSA) meeting. This one was at American Fork High School. There was some other business, but the marquee act was a discussion of vouchers, featuring Utah Senator Mark Madsen in favor and State PTA Board member Holly Langton against. The two sides got equal time, as far as I could tell. That's important. But that's where the equality ended.

Senator Madsen and his video were fine. He explained how vouchers moving some children to private schools will at least take the edge off a brutal growth curve in coming years, which will pose great difficulties for the public schools, their infrastructure, their funding (as in my taxes), etc.

Meanwhile, Ms. Langton, who I'm sure is a perfectly nice person and even kind to small animals, has me thinking: There must be some well-reasoned arguments against vouchers, and some voucher opponents capable of making them sensibly and articulately. Where are they?


Langton first belabored the point that the voucher legislation leaves private schools essentially unaccountable for their management of funds, the number of days in a school year, the hiring of qualified and certified teachers, their curriculum, and the rest of the usual laundry list.

I was fortunate to be called upon to ask a question, so I offered this, perhaps not in these precise words: When I buy a car, I carefully study the models, their features, their quality, their reliability, their cost, my needs, and so forth, and I end up making a sensible purchase, with which I am pleased for months and years to come. If I am at least as conscientious in choosing a private school for my child as I am in buying a used car, don't most of your accountability concerns simply fade away?

The first response to my question from was from the people sitting around me: "Thank you." "Yes." "Thank you." For her part Ms. Langton said something about that probably being true in an ideal world. I said, "I'm not an ideal parent." She changed the subject.

I would like to have asked some additional questions about accountability:

  • To whom, exactly, is the PTA accountable?
  • Aren't there some serious problems with public school accountability, too? For example, what happened to all that money the Legislature has appropriated in the recent past specifically to reduce class sizes, which teachers and principals say haven't changed perceptibly in years?
  • Isn't the public education lobby's fierce resistance to vouchers actually a campaign to resist accountability?
  • Isn't it outrageous for the public education lobby, which seems to think the Legislature should be accountable to it, not the reverse, to preach to the rest of us about accountability?
  • Isn't private schools' direct accountability to parents a lot like removing the middleman in the schools/legislature/voters accountability chain?

The Will of the People

I have heard it said -- and it was mentioned Wednesday night in one way or another -- that the reason the voters should oppose vouchers is that the Legislature, in passing them, and the Governor, in signing the bills, were opposing the will of the people. This is theoretically possible, but I still have some questions:

  • In a democratic republic -- a representative democracy, if you prefer -- isn't the will of the popularly elected legislative body by definition the will of the people? (A nice theory, I know.)
  • Many of the legislators who voted for vouchers campaigned on them and won -- many by landslides. Governor Huntsman campaigned on them, and he won by a significant margin, too. How are vouchers not already the demonstrated will of the people?
  • If the voucher referendum passes, will the public education lobby accept vouchers as the will of the people? Or will it challenge the vote? Will it tie the law up in state and federal court? Will it pour money into campaigns in the next election to defeat those who voted for them, in the hope a new legislature would dismantle the program? (That's what it did in the last batch of campaigns, where it could.)

I think I know the answer to that last one.

Every Dollar

In its last session the Utah Legislature gave the public schools a considerable budget increase. Then they gave the public schools a big chunk of that large budget surplus. Then they were angry -- do you blame them? -- when the public school lobby excoriated them for not giving all the surplus to the schools. It seems reasonable to conclude that the lobby somehow feels it has a legitimate claim to every budget dollar. (After all, are not children more important than anything else?)

So it's no surprise that the lobby feels that the funding for vouchers takes money away from the public school budget, even though it comes from the general fund, not the schools budget. This view makes perfect sense -- if you believe that all of the money in the budget rightfully belongs to the public schools. I think it belongs to the voters -- as in the people; perhaps the lobby itself will feel better about those voters if 50.1 percent of them swallow the KoolAid and defeat the referendum.

A Crisis of Confidence

The local PTSA president, the local principal, and Ms. Langton all told us how wonderful American Fork High School is; likewise our Utah public schools generally. I'll concede the point. AFHS is an excellent high school, considerably better than the one I attended, which excelled in some ways. So is American Fork Junior High, with a little asterisk related to fuzzy math. So is Barratt Elementary, to which we've driven at least one child for more than eight years -- with a somewhat larger asterisk related to fuzzy math. Offer us vouchers, and we're almost certain to keep sending our children to these public schools.

So why don't these people think their public schools can compete in an open market?

I think they can compete. I think they'll fare very well. I expect competition to improve them, to be sure, but I think they'll compete just fine.

Market? What Market?

As the argument goes, the voucher legislation is unfair because there are many communities currently without private schools. For the most part, only the Wasatch Front will benefit. "So what?" is one possible answer, but there's a better one. Voucher opponents distrust the market generally, so it's no surprise that they don't trust the market to produce new private schools where the demand exists. In any case, it makes no sense to assume changing the market (inserting vouchers) will not . . . ahem . . . change the market.

Other Stuff

(Quotations below aren't necessarily exact quotations of Ms. Langton. I didn't record the meeting. In some cases I'm paraphrasing or using a frequent expression of a common argument, which she made in the meeting, perhaps in slightly different words. And most of the responses in parenthesis weren't actually verbalized in the meeting. Some of them were made rather passionately after the meeting in conversations I participated in or simply overheard.)

"There are no studies suggesting that vouchers do any of the things proponents claim they do. All the studies say they don't." (Uh, wrong. The link leads to a long list of documents, including some empirical studies of existing programs, some position papers, some careful projections of possible future programs.)

"Well, there are no empirical studies." (See above. I know what "empirical" means in scientific research. I'm not entirely sure what it means at the PTA, because it seems to be something very different.)

"It's a big experiment. No one knows whether it will work." (I thought you said it won't work; "all the studies" show this. Which is it?)

"There's nothing in the voucher law to prevent the private school headmaster from using all the school's money to buy a yacht instead of teaching children." (Fraud and embezzlement are already illegal under other state and federal statutes. I suspect most voters know this.)

"There will be lots of fraud, waste, and abuse in private schools if vouchers pass." (And I thought it was brazen for voucher opponents to harp on accountability. Fraud? Waste? Abuse? What are those? We never see them in the public sector!)

"There's nothing to stop a student coming from private schools into a public high school with a second-grade reading level." (The implication is, the public schools will have to clean up the private school's messes -- an unbelievably bold assertion, but let's take it seriously. There's very little to stop a student coming through the public schools and into the same high school, then graduating with a second-grade reading level. Just one more argument for vouchers. Thanks for making it.)

If I Were Opposed

I know from ample experience that few things frustrate me more than when my side in a political debate makes its arguments poorly. In recent days I've been to two local public meetings where vouchers were discussed at some length by prominent people on both sides. The proponents are doing justice to their arguments, more or less. But if I were opposed to vouchers, I think I'd be very frustrated that my side has been argued so poorly. I realize this is a voucher proponent passing this judgment, but I've been a student of logic and political rhetoric for decades now, in theory and practice -- and the opponents just aren't bringing their "A game," at least not to American Fork.

Shall we give them the benefit of the the doubt for a moment, to see how that goes? Maybe this is a conscious strategy. It can be difficult to oppose rhetoric that is half a mile wide and an inch deep. You can't debunk every fallacy, half-truth, or hypocritical howler, at least not when they come at such a rapid rate. There just isn't time. If it takes two minutes to dismantle an alarmist, deceptive 15-second sound bite, then one side can spout eight of them in the time it takes to debunk one of them.

Worse, I fear two minutes is rather optimistic.

What It's All About

I'm sure most of the people who oppose vouchers do so with more honorable motivation. But at its root, the voucher argument in Utah and elsewhere is not about money. Utah's version of vouchers would allow public schools to keep "their" money, as would some other programs elsewhere. In any case it's ultimately the taxpayers' money, not the schools'. It's not about teacher salaries, because competition would likely increase them. It's not about teaching children, because private schools generally already do that as well as or better than public schools, and often more economically. It's not even about accountability.

Actually, it is about accountability, but not in the way the arguments are currently framed. It is about protecting a government-enforced, government-funded near-monopoly from accountability and competition.

The ballot question is essentially this: The Utah Legislature and Governor have attempted to assert their legitimate, statutory authority over public education -- authority they received from the people. Confident in their ability to drive majority opinion, the public education lobby has appealed to the people directly. Will the people assert their own ultimate authority over public education? Or will they, in effect, affirm that the public education lobby has authority over the constitutional state government? In theory, the people have the authority to do that.

In my hopes, at least, the sovereign people are smarter than that, no matter what sort of school they attended, and will hold the public schools accountable on Election Day.

David Rodeback comments (10/10/07):

The Daily Herald has picked the story that voucher proponents are servants of Satan. It says Ronda Rose, the advocate of that ridiculous view, is a "former state PTA board member." One wonder: Is the word "former" in that phrase a new development?

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