Deborah Gatrell: Utah school vouchers are the next shiny thing

Proposed ‘scholarships’ are not the way to solve our school woes.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utath Legislature meets, March 25, 2022.

Utahns are being sold a bill of goods — a “scholarship” package wrapped in cute Disney-esque font and clipart that promises to solve our education woes.

They’re not called vouchers, of course, because handing out your taxpayer dollars to subsidize private school tuition is a tough sell. The 2008 Louisiana voucher story was instructive. Relabeling vouchers as scholarships gave elected officials political cover.

While Hurricane Katrina set the stage for that state’s shift to vouchers, voucher-scholarships there did not live up to the hype. Even conservative organizations like the Fordham Institute freely acknowledged back in 2016, just four years into the Louisiana voucher experiment, that it was a disaster for the majority of voucher students.

In 2019, the conservative Heritage Foundation acknowledged the same, but twisted its report into a pretzel, arguing poor outcomes resulted from state administered tests comparing achievement between voucher students and traditional public school students.

That explains the explicit prohibition on state testing or other accountability measures written into the new Utah voucher scheme. Do we really believe voucher students can only succeed if we don’t check their learning? We should demand accountability for all taxpayer dollars spent on education and insist that public education money is only spent in schools that follow approved Utah educational standards.

Let’s also check the Wisconsin voucher story, as reported in a 2022 non-profit Hechinger Report newsletter. Started as a pilot in 2005, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) seemed promising to educational researcher Joshua Cowen. After carefully tracking 2,500 matched students between traditional and vouchered schools, he was surprised to find little difference in performance between them, except for one group: Students who returned to traditional public schools saw significant improvements in achievement.

Cowan goes on to say “Today we know that those bad Louisiana academic outcomes were no fluke, and indeed were beginning to appear in places like Indiana and Ohio.”

A 2022 study at The Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University-Bloomington confirms Cowen’s findings: “School vouchers have long been promoted on the grounds that they improve access to quality educational options. However, recent studies have shown large, negative impacts of vouchers on student achievement.”

Investing in questionable schemes claiming to improve educational outcomes is not what a wise steward of taxpayer money does, especially without any accountability measures. Quite the contrary — these proposed vouchers represent a boondoggle for private businesses, much like the attitude of some Utah charter schools during the pandemic.

As reported by KUTV’s Chris Jones in a Beyond the Books segment, the Utah Military Academy in 2020 collected more than $1 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans and called taxpayer dollars intended for small businesses “some of that good, free government money.”

Utah parents already have lots of choices through homeschooling, open enrollment and special permit policies within and between districts. Charter schools haven’t lived up to their promise so vouchers are the next shiny thing, but legitimate research shows they’re a sore disappointment.

What should we do instead? Invest in badly underfunded Utah public schools. Let’s throw money at the problems of large class sizes and ridiculous student-counselor ratios so students get more personal attention. Let’s get nurses back into schools. Let’s increase pay for paraeducators, custodians, substitute teachers and other support staff that keep schools running.

Let’s get more proven mental health support into schools. Let’s make all-day Kindergarten an option for all Utah parents. The documented list of needs is extensive and we owe it to all Utah children to ensure they have access to high quality education provided by highly qualified educators in safe schools, no matter what ZIP code they live in. The research is clear — wise investment in schools does make a difference.

We can increase success for all students if we invest in our public schools, the bedrock of American democracy. Don’t let your legislators make a Hurricane Katrina sized mistake by passing vouchers (again) in response to pandemic frustrations.

Contact them and insist they protect our tax dollars by opposing the House Bill 215 “Funding for Teacher Salaries and Optional Educational Opportunities” Utah Fits All voucher scheme and invest that money in public schools instead.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deborah Gatrell

Deborah Gatrell is a social studies teacher in Granite School District and a veteran with more than 20 years of military service. Her opinions are her own.