A Cruel Joke
Parents for Choice in Education‘s Charter School funding bill, HB 313, sponsored by Merlynn Newbold, passed out of the House Education Committee this morning by a narrow margin. So score one for the resurrected Parents for Choice in Education (PCE) and their KSL.com hire, über-lobbyist Chris Bleak, tasked with getting vouchers passed this session, come hell or high water. It’s not for nothing that he’s been running a full time shop at the Capitol for the last four months running.
But the path to this morning’s rigged vote on the bill actually started more than four months ago. More like 14 months ago, when PCE, tactically and conceptually trashed from its 2007 voucher campaign, decided it needed a facelift to make another run at vouchers. The Utah Association of Public Charter Schools (UAPCS) was selected as the ideal
victim vehicle, but first there was the inconvenient matter of its director, Steve Winitzky, being a wee bit hostile to PCE. Suddenly, late in 2009, two vacancies appeared on the UAPCS board when two board members resigned for unrelated reasons. PCE saw its opening and pounced.
With the assistance of UAPCS Board Chair, Mark Cluff (who for unexplained reasons was somehow functioning as Board chair in spite of not having the votes from a school to validate his chairmanship), and the completely conflicted Board member Lincoln Fillmore (Lincoln’s business is charter school consulting), the stage was set. Lincoln and Mark were both also board members at PCE, and all they needed was two more PCE bodies to get a board majority (four seats out of seven), and Winitzky would be history.
I’ve already explained here how PCE ice queen Robyn Bagley and PCE drone Jed Stevenson, swiftly moved into the vacant slots and so I won’t rehash that history now. But I mention it because it’s important to remember that ever since Winitzky was shoved down the gangplank, with most of the rest of the staff following in short and not so short order, UAPCS became an empty shell ripe for looting; a host really, for the PCE parasite within. When legislators hear Chris Bleak introduce himself as the Executive Director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, they should keep this in mind.
PCE cowardice and an IRS question
By now the UAPCS is an Association in name only. There is virtually no staff aside from Lobbyist Chris Bleak and Accidental Lobbyist Kim Frank. Former PCE Office Manager and Tenth Amendment fundraiser Allison Holmes, is coordinating the group’s annual conference in June. Many charter schools who were former members of the association have simply elected not to pay dues.
Bagley is actually not on the UAPCS board any more, and neither is Stevenson, but at this point, that’s irrelevant. Delaina Tonks, from Bagley’s online charter school, Open High School, can take marching orders. And really, once Winitzky had been eliminated, the heavy lifting was done.
For sure, the UAPCS has offered no services at all to its members since June of 2010, unless you count lobbying as a service. Some say that lobbying is the only thing many of these schools cared about anyway, and you might say that this is their prerogative, except for 2 inconvenient truths:
- Part of the money that is being used for PCE/UAPCS lobbying came from a grant from the Daniels Foundation that was meant for the association to provide services to charter schools in the interest of improving charter school quality. It was never meant for lobbying. Not only a violation as far as Daniels is concerned, but also probably, the IRS.
- Part of the money being used for PCE/UAPCS lobbying is public money. For a number of years Utah’s charter schools have managed to siphon off 25% of per-pupil funding from the school districts (obtained through property taxes), to themselves, despite a state legislative audit that says that many of the schools are miserably run – no idea whatsoever about how to comply with state reporting requirements – and they have virtually no oversight. There is a team of 5 at the State Office of Education to oversee 78 charter schools, with more in the pipeline. Some argue that the money being used can be characterized not as public money but money from the private fundraising the charter schools must do to cover their funds shortage. But this is unconvincing. Without public funding to begin with, the school would not exist, and therefore there would be no fundraising. It’s a shell game.
The mortal assault on public education
Newbold’s bill works like this. Starting this year, instead of taking only 25% of the “local replacement” per pupil funding (funneled to the districts through property taxes), kindergartners who leave the regular school system to go to charter schools will take 100% of their district funding with them. The rest of the students (grades 1-12) who leave for charter schools will only continue to siphon off 25%. In 2012, kindergartners and first graders will take 100% of the funding, with the rest still at 25%. In 2013, kindergartners, first and second graders will siphon off 100% until 13 years from now (and if you believe they’re really going to move that slowly, they also have some swampland to sell you), charter school students from kindergarten through 12th grade will be robbing 100% of the per pupil funding from the districts. When your local school can’t keep the lights on any longer, don’t say we didn’t tell you so. Maybe the local schools can be turned into homeless shelters or jails?
You could look at it like this. Grover Norquist famously talked about shrinking the government to the size that it could be drowned in the bathtub. In this case, all the water will be drained from the bathtub first, making it difficult to drown the school districts, but if the climate is bad enough they can just catch pneumonia and die. Would Grover approve of raising taxes to do it? Because that’s what PCE has planned.
The Magic Money Tree
This brings us to the craziest thing about Newbold’s two bills, which she insists are not related. Sure they aren’t. Newbold told the education committee this morning that if the money were to follow the student, the school districts would benefit because they would have less students to educate. So here are a couple of questions for Newbold. When her six children began to leave home, did the bank reduce her mortgage? Did the roofer give discounts accordingly? Did the lawn grow a little slower, need a little less water? Did the heat bill go down every time a child left? Why would school districts be immune to the same economic laws that govern everyone else? But more importantly, when Newbold paid into Utah’s public education system through her property taxes, did she pay six times, because she had six children? Or did she pay the same as her neighbor who only had one?
Utah’s per-pupil spending, to our everlasting shame, is the lowest in the nation, at around $6,000. It is a complicated pie, and you can check out how tax revenues are assigned to schools through this handy chart produced by the Utah Taxpayer Association.
Now let’s do some simple math. Let’s say Newbold’s property taxes were $1000 a year while her children were school-age. Let’s say her one-child neighbor lived in a similar house on a similar piece of land, and her taxes were also $1000 a year. Should Newbold have been allowed to withdraw $60,000 while her neighbor withdrew only $6,000? PCE seems to think so.
At this rate, the biggest economic growth opportunity in Utah in the coming years will be in home schools set up as “charter schools”. Think of the income possibilities.
And if the tax money tree starts to look a little bare? Newbold has a fix for that as well. In her Not-A-Companion-Bill, H.B. 301. H.B. 301 suspends the truth-in-taxation hearings for a year so that when the school districts are obliged to raise taxes to cover the shortfall they are now being forced to turn over to the unaccountable charter schools, it can be neatly done without having to bother with annoying public participation.
The obvious plan here is to make school districts into the tax raising bogeyman, while everyone forgets that it was PCE and its charter allies who set the whole thing up.
Better than vouchers
It’s better than vouchers if you think about it. Vouchers were only going to bestow a totally unfundable rebate of $700 per child. Robbing the system of something close to $6,000 per pupil will drain the bathtub quite a bit faster. PCE is evidently tired of waiting around.
In my next post I will introduce you to some of the people in the PCE/UAPCS braintrust and talk a little more about the democracy that PCE fears so much. Even though this bill has been in the works for over a year, it didn’t surface until late last week, 9 days before the end of the 2011 session, with public comment so severely restricted as to be essentially meaningless. There was a reason for that.