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The tax increase voucher opponents won’t tell you about, and how to avoid it

The state Supreme Court has cleared up the ambiguities about Citizen’s State Referendum 1 this fall, and the campaign is under way. The first volley came when both sides submitted reasons for the referendum to repeal Utah’s voucher law to the Lt. Governor’s Office. While voucher supporters offered cogent reasons to vote YES on Citizen’s State Referendum 1, the opponents trotted out tired assertions that our elected officials have heard and rejected. More importantly, the opponents ignore the taxpayer reasons every Utahn should say YES to vouchers.

Recognizing the need to better fund Utah’s public schools, the Utah Legislature has more than doubled per pupil spending over the past 15 years. This dramatic increase-today Utah spends just over $7500 per pupil-has been possible because the state’s economy has been red hot, while enrollment growth has been flat. Between 1990 and 2006 Utah’s classrooms grew by only 18%, while the number of Utah jobs grew by a whopping 67%.

Unfortunately, these trends no longer prevail. Between 1990 and 2004, Utah schools never grew by more than 10,000 students in a given year; in 2005, 14,330 new students enrolled, and another 16,075 entered in 2006. The State Office of Education’s most current projections show another 156,345 new students entering Utah classrooms between 2007 and 2016, nearly quadruple the number of new students who entered Utah classrooms in the 1990’s.

More troubling is the reality that Utah’s economy will not always grow so rapidly. Since 1980, Utah has had 2 significant economic slowdowns, in 1986 and again in 2001 to 2003. With student enrollment growing faster than it did in the 1990’s, but not so fast as it is now, the 1986 slowdown forced lawmakers to impose the largest tax increase - $176 million - in Utah history.

The 2001 to 2003 slowdown happened while Utah school enrollment was flat, so no tax increase was necessary. However, it was all the Legislature could do not to cut public education spending. And if the slowdown had lasted just 6 months longer, Legislators would likely have had to raise taxes again.

It is at best folly-at worst irresponsible-to hope that Utah’s hot economy can protect taxpayers from further the tax increases brought on the dramatic increase in public school enrollment. With the largest families in the nation, and per capita income well below the national average, lawmakers must identify policy options that simultaneously reduce the strain on our public school system and increase the amount of money available to educate Utah children.

That is why the Legislature and the Governor adopted HB 148. Vouchers help solve both aspects of Utah’s education-taxpayer dilemma. Each time a student switches from public school to private school because of vouchers (worth between $500 and $3000), Utah’s public schools have one fewer child to educate, and they have between $4500 and $7000 more to spend on the rest of Utah’s children. In other words, vouchers decrease the number of students in Utah classrooms and increase the amount of money available for other students. Utah policy makers rightly see vouchers as one of several tools we need to avoid another tax increase. The lessons of 1986 and 2001 to 2003 are too clear and compelling to avoid any other conclusion.

Utah Taxpayers Association

And what about those parents who would be sending their children to private schools anyway? The impact will be minimal, and here's why.

According to voucher opponents, all current private school students come from wealthy families. This means each of these students would receive $500. If all 17,000 or so private school student were IMMEDIATELY eligible for vouchers, that yields a fiscal impact of $8.5 million per year.

To offset this amount, an additional 1,545 students would need to transfer (assuming an average voucher amount of $2,000 which yields a per student savings of $5,500).

Do private schools have capacity to accept an additional 1,545 students? Yes, since this would only be an enrollment increase of about 9%. Not only is current capacity sufficient for a 9% increase, but private schools will increase capacity as demand increases. Catholic school capacity has increased in Utah -- as evidenced by new campuses in recent years -- as demand has increased.

Combined with financial aid from the schools themselves, a voucher will enable low and moderate income families to send their children to private schools.

I find it interesting that you use both $500 and $2,000 to calculate what I believe is the same impact. First, who is the "voucher opponent" quoted as stating that "all current private school students come from wealthy families"? Second, if the average voucher in the future is $2,000, and all current students only receive $500, you will need approximately 25,000 new private school students, each with a voucher for $3,000 to have an average voucher of $2,000. The cost for 42,000 students at $2,000 each is now $84,000,000 a year and we will need 2.5 times as many private schools. Is this really what you are saying?

Anon,

No, $500 is for the existing private school students and $2,000 is for the switchers. Here's the math again:

Existing students' costs: $500/student x 17,000 students = $8,5 million

Savings from switchers = ($7,500/student - $2,000/student) x 1,545 students = $8.5 million

The fundamental misconception Americans have about school funding is that the money is created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by the legislature, and then is transferred to immaculately conceived holy institutions called "public schools" which have the sole authorization from God to educate children.

The real facts are:
(1) The funds come from taxpayers, including the parents of children who are attending private schools or being home schooled, while those parents get nothing in return.
(2) The goal of publicly financed education is the education of children, not the maintenance of institutions called "public schools", and alternative methods of buying education services for Utah's children have just as much moral right to that funding as the "public schools".
(3) The "public schools" are "public" only in who owns the real estate and who controls the curriculum. Everything else that state education money buys is PRIVATE, including:
(a) The concrete, bricks, windows, plumbing, electrical, lighting, and air conditioning that go into school buildings and the work that assembles them.
(b) The textbooks, desks and chairs, computers, paper, musical instruments, copying machines, and other furnishings, equipment, and supplies are all bought from private manufacturers and suppliers.
(c) The school buses and the tires and fuel for them are all bought from private manufacturers and suppliers.
(d) The teachers and other employees are all private individuals who can spend their salaries as they see fit, including paying for tuition at a parochial school for their own kids.
(e) The money for school construction is actually borrowed on the commercial bond market in transactions that require support from highly paid lawyers, bankers and bond brokers.

Thus, a "public" school is actually private in the sources of its financing, construction, materials, transportation, books, and teachers. It is no more "sacred" than a private school that buys its construction, goods and services from the same private sources, and may hire from the same pool of teachers.

Once we understand that "public schools" are not sacred, we can look at them realistically as simply one way to spread money into the private sector in order to get educational services for children.

Even though private schools may not be owned by parents (although there is no reason they couldn't be non-profit corporations in which each parent must buy stock), they are even more responsive to parents than public schools because parents can take their kids to public schools or to another private school. Private schools must make their customers happy, while public schools are structured to make their employees happy.

Can you help me understand your use of the $7,500 figure? According to the State Office of Education published estimates, the total funding for 2007-2008 from the State is $3,024,254,129. The same publication estimates 43,055 kinergarten students and 762,579 studnets in grade 1-12. I believe that is less tahn $6,000 per student? Can you help me understand?

The $7,500 figure is an estimate for FY08 and includes local and federal sources, not just state. The Minimum School Program includes some local dollars such as basic levy, voted/board/reading leeways but not capital, debt service, transportation, tort liability, 10% of basic.

We estimate total district spending in FY08 at over $4 billion.

There will be about 540,000 students in FY08, not the 700K+ figure you cited. You may confusing enrollment with WPUs.

Amen

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