Monday, October 15, 2007

School Vouchers, Oreos, and Cheesecake

So I can't help but weigh in on this issue, with the vote coming in a few weeks' time. For those of you outside the state of Utah, we're considering a measure to put between $500-$3,000 dollars (per student) into the hands of families who send their children to private schools. The summary bullet points for the pro-voucher folks are some pretty good sound bites. According to the folks at, this is about:

Your Money
Your Child
Your Choice

One of my favorite ads for the voucher program is a couple explaining it with an Oreo analogy. Each child in a class of thirty has an Oreo for every thousand dollars spent on them (7,000 per child), one goes to a private school, taking the maximum 3,000 and the remaining amount stays in the school. The argument is a smaller class size, with more money for the public school--plus the one child gets an opportunity for private school they might not otherwise have.

Here's my problem with it (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). First, the $4k stays in the school district for only 5 years. I'm not clear on where it goes after that, but it goes--presumably to the private schools where it is being spent, more likely back into the general fund that is supporting the voucher program (more on that in a bit). The idea is that natural enrollment increases will replace those dollars--which sounds great as long as our per pupil funding stays the same, and gets adjusted for inflation (note this would just be to support the status quo, we'll talk opportunity costs in a bit too).

So during that first 5 years, where is the money coming from? The state general fund, not the uniform school fund (as is quick to point out). A seemingly fabulous idea, but here's the opportunity cost. What if you took the 9.2 million dollars for vouchers and put it into the poorest of our school districts? Increasing teacher pay/professional development/mentoring/retention, reducing class sizes, increasing access to technology, providing more vocational classes and programs? Yes it's a drop in the bucket in terms of the 3.5 billion dollar uniform school fund, but here's the thing. It isn't one bucket. It's several different buckets and you're dropping it in the one that's already full. What's more, you're doing it with everyone's tax dollars.

Briefly let's talk about another fact that openly discloses:

. . . the state's cost of every child in private school is supplemented by money paid by their parents, since the voucher normally does not cover the entire cost of tuition

This makes a tremendous amount of sense, private schools can get expensive. In fact, according to, the median tuition rate is $3,800 per year. Let's crunch some numbers. Someone in the middle of the low income 2 person household (say a single mom) making $12,210/year qualifies for the full $3,000. She has to make up the $800 difference--which is about 6.5% of her annual income spent towards education. A single mom in the middle of the 2nd highest bracket earns $57,989/year and qualifies for only a $1,000 voucher. She makes up the $2,800 which amounts to 4.8% of her annual income. So it looks like we're helping the low income families, and that's certainly the way school choice is being pitched, but in reality we're helping people who don't need that much help at all. All of this assumes, of course than an equal range of income families participate and that the only costs of private school are tuition. Every additional dollar spent on things like transportation, school uniforms, etc . . . can be subsumed by the wealthier family a lot more easily. My bet, is that this will consist of a series of $500 tax breaks for the wealthiest families who already send their kids to private schools.

The honest sound bite for vouchers is

Your Money (I've got plenty of my own)
My Child
My Choice

We may not be taking Oreos away from public education, but we are adding Oreos to the education pie, just concentrating them into a tiny little slice that goes to the guy who already ate all the cheesecake, and the bon-bons, and a whole box of dove ice cream bars.

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