Thursday, November 01, 2007

Fractional Debate

Prior to becoming a Congressman, Representative Rob Bishop spent 28 years as a public school teacher; so, it is not surprising that he doesn't know how fractions work. Very few people in public education these days seem to understand complex ideas like fractions or grammar. Anyway, Representative Bishop is running a TV ad that says:

[the voucher system] increases funds for spending on public schools

He is wrong. Vouchers will decrease spending on public schools. It will, however, increase total spending on education.

The Teachers Union is running ads that say vouchers will pull money from the public schools and conclude that this will decrease spending per student in public schools and increase class sizes. This, again, is not true. Vouchers would reduce the number of students at a greater rate than the reduced funding; so it actually increases spending per student.

Of course, I would not expect a group of public school teachers to be able to do fractions. I forgive them this error.

While fractions are above the required skill set for public school teachers, I think fractions are a good thing for voters to understand. This whole voucher debate is about the complex inner working of fractions.

The Math of Vouchers

Utah is a land of extremes. I've seen in several blogs and news articles the figure that 96% of Utah students go to public school. (I have not found an authoritative source for this number). Utah has an extremely high birth rate. The result of these facts is that Utah has both the highest tax burden for taxpayer in the US and ranks among the lowest in per capita spending per student. States with higher percentages of students in private school have more money to spend per public school student and have a lower tax burden.

The whole voucher thing will help correct this imbalance.

The extremely high tax burden makes it hard to improve per student spending. Since there is a projected spike in new students in coming years, Utah will soon be facing an education crisis.

The number of students is outside the control of the legislature. Utah could reduce the crisis if it found a way to divert some of the increase in our school population to private schools, where they are less of a burden on the state.

The voucher program would create a mechanism that would allow students underserved by the public school system a way out. It does this by creating a resource that follows the student. The resource ranges from $3000 to $500 depending on a family's income.

If a student leaves the public school, they will take $3k and add some of their personal money and go to a private school. They will leave $4k in the public school.

So, here is what the numbers do:

There are some students who are going to private schools who will use vouchers. This group pays taxes for services that they do not use. The voucher system will decrease the total amount of wealth transferred from this group. Reducing this wealth transfer directly decreases spending on public schools. There is a fairness issue here. The system is charging people for a service that they do not use.

A larger group will be students who leave the public school and go to private schools. The students in this group will take $3000 with them to their new school, but leave $4000 in the public school system. The families of these students are likely to spend an additional $2000 of their own money on education. The people in this group will free up resources for other students in public education. They will dramatically increase the amount spent in private education. This group will result in a big boost in total education expenses in the state.

Utah currently has only a tiny number of students in private schools. So, the proposal is likely to result in a big increase in the total spent on education. This increase would be realized primarily by the private schools.

Since Utah is expecting a big influx of students in upcoming years, we are likely to see a boom in the private school industry, while the public school system simply stays phenomenally large.

The public school system is like Walmart. The new fad of town sponsored Farmers Markets has decreased the growth of Walmart, but Walmart is still really big. Just as the Farmers Market has spurred a growth in small independently owned farms, the voucher system will spur the growth of small independently owned schools. The initiative simply increases local ownership, quality and diversity. Just as Walmart is huge, the public school system will remain huge.


This is the summary of the voucher proposal:

The Total amount spent on education increases and per student spending increases.

This increase will be realized primarily by the private school system.

The boom in privately owned schools would lead to a boom in privately owned local equity. The increase in privately owned equity would increase overall wealth in the state and increase state tax revenues.

The high taxpayer burden for education in Utah would remain the same, but there would be an increase in spending per student. The only social justice question is that wealthy families currently sending their children to private schools could get a break of $500 per child. This is countered by moral questions about robbing peter to pay paul.

Back to the Campaigns

It is sad, but most of the ads on the voucher proposal seem to be misleading people. The voucher system will increase spending per student. It will dramatically increase the amount spent on private education in this state. It will decrease the total number of students in public schools and decrease the growth of the public education behemoth (which will remain humongous).

Richard Eyre of Values Parenting has one of the better commercial on vouchers. In his commercial he has a plate with thirty stacks of cookies seven cookies high to represent a public school classroom. He shows that if you take one of the stacks of cookies from the plate, then redistribute 4 of the cookies from the stack back on the plate, the remaining stacks of cookies would be higher.

I wish his commercial showed additional cookies being added to the stacks going to the private schools. The amount of money parents spend on their kids should count as money spent on kids. Alas, I fear Mr. Eyre's model is far too complicated for people educated in the public school system to comprehend.


Scott Hinrichs said...

"This group pays taxes for services that they do not use. The voucher system will decrease the total amount of wealth transferred from this group."

Actually, there are many that pay taxes for services they do not use — at least not directly. My neighbors pay taxes for public schools, but they haven't had kids in public schools for years. For these folks, this is a pure wealth transfer.

We socialized education funding a long time ago because of the communalistic understanding that an educated person benefits the entire community. There is no headlong rush to undo this. Thus, the fairness issue kind of breaks down for me.

However, it is possible to argue that the taxpayers actually get a better deal on this community-funded education (higher quality, lower cost, etc.) when parents are put in the driver's seat on school choice. We cannot, of course, assume that all parents will make the wisest choices, but as a group they will arguably make ovarall better choices than the trust-us-because-we-know-better-than-you crowd.

Thank you for noting that vouchers would take money from public schools. And thanks also for noting that overall education spending would still be higher than it would be otherwise.

The real issue, however, is that parents have been constantly marginalized from their children's education over the past four decades. As more control over education has been passed up the chain — first to state controllers and then to the mindless federal leviathan — the power of parents to influence their children's educational outcomes has been increasingly diminished. Instead, the system berates them for doing a lousy job of supporting this impenetrable system.

Parents are rebelling. Home schooling rates and charter schools are on the rise. Vouchers may go down next week, but the battle will not stop. Momentum is behind parents and freedom of choice. They will eventually (perhaps only a little at a time) wrest control from the current power structure. And when they do, educational outcomes will improve across the board.

y-intercept said...

In this regard the tax credit is easier to argue.

Anyway, the decision to go through the hardships necessary to put a child through private school is a double opting out.

You can argue on the positive side that the communal decision was that the community would pay for education. The money is for the education and for the teachers union or corrupt public education establishment. So the fairness is that some of the money following the children should follow the children to private schools.

Scott Hinrichs said...

That's a good clarification.

y-intercept said...

The real post was about how all of the fractions work. Giving credits to parents who would have taken their kids out of public school anyway is the one and only one downside for the public schools. This group should stand out.

I added the sentence you highlighted at the last minute. Because, although they stand out as a negative, they happen to be the people who are adding the most to education. The real question that jumps out in my mind is "Why are we punishing the people who do the most for education?"

I think the real mistake was the provision that allows a $500 voucher for anyone was really foolish. It is not enough to make a difference in a child's education, but is enough to trigger wealth envy.