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Vouchers: Responding to Rep. Kay McIff, part 1

Rep. Kay McIff (R) outlined ten reasons why he opposes vouchers in a guest editorial that appeared in yesterday's Standard Examiner. We'll be addressing these points (in no particular order) over the week, starting today.

In point number two, McIff argues that vouchers are a subsidy for private industry and compares vouchers to subsidizing golfers on private courses. This claim has several flaws.

- The existing public education system itself is a subsidy. Most families do not earn enough income to pay enough taxes to cover the cost of educating their children in public schools (and still have enough left over to cover the costs of other government services). The top 1% of taxpayers pay about 20% of all individual income taxes (this percentage fluctuates based on the state of the economy) and the top 10% pay about 50% of all income taxes. Public education was instituted so that high income families could subsidize the education of middle and lower income families.

- Private school vouchers are actually a smaller subsidy than the existing public school subsidy. On average, Utah will be spending $7,500 per student in 2008 (includes capital and debt service costs that government reports and newspapers exclude). The average voucher amount is expected to be about $1,900. That's why vouchers are a good deal for everyone, including those who do not have children and those whose children will continue to attend public schools. (Please click here to read our response to concerns about existing private school students getting vouchers.)

- Comparing private school vouchers to golf courses is truly apples and oranges. First, education is an entitlement enshrined in the state constitution and vouchers are a lower cost way to deliver this entitlement. Golf is not an entitlement (yes, we know some people would disagree with that). Besides, government shouldn't be in the golf course business anyway. This is something the taxpaying private sector can provide.

- While vouchers are a subsidy for low- and middle-income students who receive them, vouchers are not a subsidy for the private schools themselves. Government routinely contracts with the private sector to provide services. Food stamps, for example, are a subsidy for the low income families that receive them but are not a subsidy for the grocery stores that accept them. School districts contract with private companies to build facilities. These are not subsidies for privately owned construction companies because these companies are providing a service. The same is true for vouchers since private schools will be providing education services.

Finally, while McIff didn't mention this, a commonly used "subsidy" argument claims that vouchers are bad policy because government doesn't give vouchers to people who buy their own security systems. Again, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison because government is not currently imposing general taxes in order to have government employees install and monitor security systems for all residents. If government were currently taxing its citizens in order to provide security systems as a constitutional entitlement, then vouchers would make sense if the voucher amount were less than the amount the state was paying to provide this service on its own.

Please click here to read our response to concerns about existing private school students getting vouchers.

Anytime someone argues against vouchers because of supposed harm to "the public school system," it exposes them as more interested in protecting a union-dominated monopoly than in helping kids. Public schools don't exist for the sake of having schools. They exist to educate children. If vouchers provide a way to educate a child for less money, in a school that is a better match for that child, we should applaud.

Public schools are one tool the government uses to achieve its goal of building a well educated population. Vouchers are and should be another arrow in the quiver to educate children.

One note about rich families subsidizing poor families.

While it is true that low income families pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes (due primarily to sales taxes which are inherently regressive) than high income families, high income families still pay much more in taxes in dollar amounts.

Bottom line: while tax burdens on a percent basis indicate that the system is "unfair" towards to poor, government programs are still disproportionately funded by high income households, which addresses our previous point that a fundamental reason for having public education is to require high income families to subsidize the education of middle and low income families.

Kay McIff's arguments blew my mind away...

He's a former district court judge but his arguments are illogical at best.

Not only does he butcher the subsidy argument (From his comments, you'd think Utah was a socialist state), but he butchers some basic economic principles on the way as well.

Since when was weeding out failing schools a bad thing? Yes, it is upsetting to children to have their school close, but it's even more upsetting to keep them trapped in a failing school until they either "earn" a diploma or drop out.

And on top of it all, he was on the State Board of Regents, the governing body of our higher education system, which not only welcomes competition but even gives out vouchers worth well over $3,000! They're called Pell Grants.

We trust an 18 year old with government money, but we don't trust a 40 year old mom?

What?

Anon,

Excellent point. Too often voucher supporters are portrayed as being "anti-public education".

While there are undoubtedly some individuals and organizations that want to end public education, that is not the case for the Utah groups that support vouchers.

Parents for Choice in Education is the primary group advocating for vouchers in Utah. The Utah Taxpayers Association also actively supports vouchers. These two groups are the ONLY groups actively promoting vouchers in Utah and both groups support vouchers as a supplement to the existing public education entitlement and as a means, along with the existing public education system, to achieve the goal of having the world's best education system.

How can McIff cry about voucher subsidies when he voted for taxpayer subsidies for Dave Checketts and Real Salt Lake?

Vouchers at least fulfill a constitutional education entitlement and is good public policy.

>These two groups are the ONLY groups actively promoting vouchers in Utah

But they're not the only groups *paying* for such advocacy. Follow the money.

Yes Craig, and in the world of Utah Amicus and Democrats obsessed with right-wing conspiracies, there are actually only 10 people who support vouchers in the entire state:

1) the 9 people who work for either Utah Taxpayers or PCE, and

2) One ultra-conservative nut in a trailer with more machine guns than the Sheriff's Department.

If we want to talk about who supports what, notice that the groups most opposed to vouchers are made of people who either:

1) make their living from the current system, or

2) have been duped into thinking that their "parent" organization is an independent voice for children with no strings attached to the groups made of people who make their living from the current system.

What should really matter are the merits of the arguments for or against vouchers. And in my book, the arguments for vouchers have a big lead.

Dave, your reply made me laugh until you got all serious.

The wealthy pay more in taxes because they make more. This isn't a difficult concept, the wealthy enjoy a larger percentage of the benefits of public investments so they are obligated to pay a larger portion to keep those investments going.

The public school system provides the fundamental training that allows companies to be successful, Utah to have a strong economy and create wealth for our state, if we didn't have the entitlement of public education than companies would have to pay more to train their employees to receive the necessary skills that our public education system currently provides.

The wealthy somehow have this concept that they can avoid these costs but as long as they want to keep having top notch employees than one way another they are going to end up paying, they should continue the investment made by previous generations in the 98% of employees in this state educated in public schools, the roads paid with our tax dollars, monetary system, legal system...do you want me to keep going?

These investment have allowed the wealthy to obtain their position in our great state and they should be obligated to continue these services so that our economy can remain healthy and make more wealthy people.

PS - Tell Senator Stephenson to have fun spending our tax dollars over in China. Still watching over our tax dollars?...ha!!

STRAWMAN ALERT!!!

Marshall,

You are making a strawman argument by suggesting that we oppose high income households subsidizing the education of everyone else. We don't.

We are merely stating a fact when we say that high income taxpayers pay a disproportionate share of the freight, which attacks the anti-voucher argument that vouchers are subsidies.

If you don't oppose them then why bring them up? I was simply making the point that the wealthy might be subsidizing our education system in a sense but they are also receiving the benefits of having an educated population and workforce. This isn't some handout like some rich people want to pretend, if they want to run a successful business in our state they are going to be paying these costs one way or another.

Now what the wealthy want to do is reverse this situation and have the rest of the tax payers subsidize their personal decision and have rural communities subsidize these rich urban private schools. Do you think that is right?

I think you are correct that some of the examples given by Rep. Kay McIff are definitely apples to oranges comparisons. I think a much stronger argument is put forth by Emily Bingham Hollingshead in one of the best articles about Utah vouchers.

You won't discuss her article because she hits every point. She talks about the supply issue we have talked about over and over again, she talks about the tuition pricing issue we have also discussed, she talks about the myth that private schools educate are better, and she talks about why are we even having this discussion when we don't even keep up with the rest of the nation in funding our public schools. Maybe it is because Emily is a small business owner that she gets so many of these issues or maybe it is just because Emily is thinking about keeping our whole state strong instead of just herself.

It's obvious why we bring up the subsidy issue: to refute McIff's and others' false contention that vouchers are bad because they are a subsidy. Since public education is a subsidy, voucher critics can't complain that vouchers are a subsidy. Simply mentioning the existing subsidy does not mean we're opposed to it. This is straight forward logic here. It looks like you're just interested in picking a fight.

What's wrong with subsidizing a "personal decision" if the personal decision costs taxpayers less than what a public education costs (and how many times have we discussed the fiscal impact giving $500 vouchers to students that are already in private schools?)

We've addressed all of Emily's false arguments repeatedly (as you and others have made them) in previous posts, everything from only the rich will benefit, to the poor not being able to afford private schools even with tuition, to private school capacity not expanding, etc.

Emily's tuition figures are not representative of reality in Utah. While there are some expensive private schools in Utah, there are many affordable ones as well (and how many times have we discussed this?).

As far as rural taxpayers go, the arguments are the same. Diverting enrollment to the private sector at an average cost of $1,900 instead of $7,500 benefits everyone, including rurals, childless, etc.

correction: third paragraph should read "to the poor not being able to afford private schools even with VOUCHERS"

"Diverting enrollment to the private sector at an average cost of $1,900 instead of $7,500 benefits everyone, including rurals, childless, etc. "

So it's all really just a bottom-line accountancy argument. It has nothing to do with education, learning, the common good, equal opportunity, etc. Just good old cost-benefit analysis.

Why stop there? If it's more efficient to "divert" some enrollment to the private sector through a government incentive all in the name of efficiency and cost-savings, then why not shut the whole system down, print out some generous $4,000 checks/vouchers (that's still a bargain according to your logic), and tell everyone they're on their own--that their choice will make them free. Every man for himself. Take care of numero uno.

And seriously, some difficult, troubled, or disabled students are not very efficient to educate.

Since education is an essential need it would still exist, but there would be great shifts and changes in our society as a result.

What would it look like? and would we like the results? Poor kids going to cheaper schools--rich kids going to richer schools? Lack of national or community standards? Increase in classism? further balkanization of our society? No accountability to the community--just accountability to the dollar or the most assertive?

When I argue against vouchers it isn't a debate about bottom lines, competition, efficiency, test results, or silly semantic games about the word "subsidy". It is about the fundamental questions we ask as a society as we build and shape what we will become. How does our society take care of all of its members. We pay a price no matter what we decide, but in the end we get what we pay for.

"Fundamental questions we ask as a society as we build and shape what we will become. How does our society take care of all of its members."

Note the overtly collectivist language in this argument. Who exactly is this "we" that gets to determine what "we" will become? In a governmental system where majority rules, you must ask yourself the reasonable question, would I object if the majority forced me to accept a certain purveyor of a product or service over another? Would you not object if forced by majority vote to only buy your shoes from Payless, or your cars from Ford? Of course you would! Yet collectivists routinely decide the same thing for parents seeking to educate their children. Who is best to decide whether the outcome of a given educational system is "good" or "bad"? The parents of the child in question, or a group of government bureaucrats, enforcing a "one-size-fits-all" policy? Government monopoly schools ensure that all children learn from exactly the same POV when it comes to history, science, economics, civics, etc, etc, etc. I, for one, don't believe my (or anyone else's) children are well served by the commonly accepted version of "history" taught in the public schools. You may say, I have the choice to send my kids to private schools. Sure, but I am still forced to pay twice: once for private school tuition, and again in taxes to support public schools. In fact, this double payment system was originally designed as a means of discouraging parents from choosing private schooling. And it still works, even for parents who might otherwise prefer private schools.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: just because everyone may benefit everyone being educated, it does NOT logically follow that therefore we should all be taxed to pay for public education. Government can never be the best provider of education, either in quantity or quality. When the education market is distorted through taxation, there is no basis on which to calculate whether or not parents are truly satisfied. Where there is little to no competition, how can such a calculus be made?

One more thing:

"…the government has the incentive to create the impression among its citizens that its actions are legitimate…. [It can do so by] creating propaganda that brainwashes citizens to respect government institutions and processes."

"Government desires to educate because it can foster an obedient and loyal citizenry. "One has no trouble understanding why dictatorships demand government control over mass media, or why freedom of the press is viewed as a fundamental check on government's power…. Governments can still control the flow of ideas without controlling the mass media if they control the education system" (Holcombe, 1997).

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