02 November 2007

Referendum 1 - School Vouchers

Last night we attended a debate about Referendum 1 (school vouchers in Utah) at Provo High School. We've written about it before--here and here--so frequent readers will know we favor vouchers--indeed, we favor free market reforms generally.

A few observations:

- 43% of minority students in Utah do not graduate from high school. Voucher programs in Milwaukee, Washington DC, and Florida have all proven to aid primarily minority students. With a sliding scale, progressive voucher award in Utah ($3000 for the poorest students; $500 for the wealthiest), Referendum 1 appears geared to help minority students.

- Statewide, Utah schools have about 13% minority student populations. Private schools are nearly double that. This is significant because the anti-voucher crowd insists vouchers would result in increased segregation.

- Utah test scores, while good compared to the rest of the nation, don't compare well to states with similar demographics--especially similar levels of college educated parents. Apples to apples, Utah schools underperform.

- Paul Mero, President of the Sutherland Institute (a SLC based think tank) and Dr. Patrick Byrne (CEO Overstock.com) represented the pro-voucher side at the debate. They did a fair job of arguing in favor of vouchers--Mr. Mero was especially sharp. Though we understand the issues surrounding vouchers, we were sometimes confused by Dr. Byrne's analogies. We wonder what a public that is undecided and unfamiliar with the issues thought of Dr. Byrne's comments.

- To those familiar with the literature and research regarding vouchers, the supposedly neutral researchers from the University of Utah revealed their true colors. They were selective in their use of evidence and their opposition to vouchers was thinly veiled.

- The grade-school teacher/teachers union rep and "concerned mother" representing the anti-voucher crowd were very effective debaters. Polished and prepared, they came off well. Initially we thought that perhaps the crowd was largely anti-voucher, the Q&A session revealed exactly the opposite as the vast majority of questions were rhetorical critiques of the anti-voucherers.

- To our mind, the most revealing exchange came near the end of the debate. The "neutral" researchers acknowledged the desire for choice in schools and suggested that there were alternatives to vouchers. the anti-voucherers seized on this and insisted that the debate was a waste of time, that instead they should have been discussing ways to improve schools and bring more choice to public education. They highlighted the choice that had been introduced in Utah in recent history. They listed charter schools and magnet schools as some of the best.

This was all the opening the pro-voucherers needed. The pointed out, rightly, that these reforms had only come about because of outside agitation and that furthermore, the teachers union establishment had fought against these reforms tooth and nail, as they were now fighting against vouchers. They concluded it was wrong for their side to claim credit for something they vociferously opposed.

They should have added that public schools had been at this for x amount of years and results were still poor. That if change was going to come from within, it would have by now. They could point out that money has been thrown at public schools (55% increase under Bush) and yet test scores have not improved. The only reason the teachers union was willing to even discuss reform is because they were facing a mortal threat--vouchers.

Notice that vouchers aren't a mortal threat to teachers or students, but teachers unions. This is an important distinction. Teachers unions use "the children" as a political tool. Yet they oppose simple reforms like merit pay which would reward better teachers.

No, teachers unions act like any government-imposed monopoly would behave--they are fighting to the death to defend their privileged territory.

None of this should be interpreted as ingratitude or lack of respect for good teachers. We agree that teachers aren't paid enough--good teachers that is. Meanwhile, the poor teachers should be fired. The current system makes no distinction between the two and compensates them equally.

- One more canard we want to debunk: certification. As a barrier to entry, teachers unions have established a "certification" process that supposedly guarantees the ability of teachers to teach. Anyone who has attended public schools knows that no amount of "certification" can improve many teachers ability. Indeed, many of the best teachers in our societies have received no certification whatsoever. Consider that experienced and educated members of the general publich--a retired civil engineer, builder, businessman, social worker, someone with a master's degree or PhD--cannot teach at a public school simply because they do not have the required "certification." That private schools can hire teachers with no certification, say anti-voucherers, is a sure sign they will fail our children. Right. Vouchers mean that parents are in charge of guaranteeing their children's education. If a school fails to teach their child, they can simply take them to another school. Parents talk to each other. Information is and will be widely available about the performance of these schools. If private schools fail to teach children necessary skills, they will lose students and fail. Successful ones will succeed.

Contrast that with public schools. If they fail to teach, there is no option for students. They fail along with the school. And in the case of minority students, they are failing at a ridiculous rate that bears repeating:

43% of minority students in Utah do not graduate. Vouchers gives those students a chance.

*Additional voucher reading: George F. Will, Utah's Voucher Vote Most Important Of This Year And Next

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