Thursday, September 27, 2007

More voucher vagueness from Mero & Co. (UPDATED)

UPDATE: No wonder the Sutherland Institute's "research" was short on details. Richard Warnick has pointed us to an informative Trib article about private school affordability. From reading that article, the Sutherland Institute's results aren't just vague, they are intentionally misleading. [Last sentence about Catholic schools deleted in deference to Derek's comment below.]

The Sutherland Institute's credibility is sinking faster than a back yard in Draper. Rather than admit that they're rabidly pro-voucher and that everything they say is intended to advocate for that position, they try to pass themselves off as an "educational" resource that just happens to have done some research that might happen to be of interest on this subject. Frankly, though, if their latest press release is any measure, we question the Sutherland Institute's ability to research its way out of the proverbial paper bag. (Hat tip to KVNU's For the People.)

First, the title: "Average Tuition at Utah’s Private Schools is $4,520"

That characterization itself is b.s. Did the headline writer even read the press release?
Salt Lake City, UT – September 27, 2007 – Independent research conducted by the non-profit Sutherland Institute shows the average tuition among the majority of voucher-eligible private schools in Utah is $4,520. And nearly 64 percent of these private schools are within the range of affordability for low-income families, having tuition below $4,500.
"Independent" research? Yeah, like all those independent tobacco studies conducted by Philip Morris. The "average" tuition "among the majority" of voucher-eligible private schools is $4,520, the Institute says. It later mentions that it subtracted the six highest-priced schools before it calculated this average. Translation: The alleged "average" tuition "among those school we chose to include" is supposedly $4,520.

"Nearly 64 percent" of "these" private schools (i.e., 64 percent of those left after subtracting another 9 percent from the 73 percent that responded) are "within the range of affordability for low-income families, having tuition below $4,500." “Affordability is a subjective term,” said Sutherland Institute President, Paul T. Mero. “But consider a low-income family that receives the maximum school voucher amount of $3,000 per child. The difference between the average tuition rate and the maximum school voucher is $1,520, or $127 per month. That is less than the price of a car payment.”

Right. The poorest families who would qualify for the $3,000-per-child max would hardly notice an extra $127 per month out of their paychecks. We can't decide whether these guys are arrogant or delusional.

Of the 88 voucher-eligible schools contacted, 64 responded.
OK, the Institute's figures are based on 72.7 percent of the schools that it contacted. (And, by the way, can we see the survey questions and answers? Hate to sound cynical, but you don't suppose some of the 24 no-shows were on the high end, do you? And that, possibly deducing how the Institute wanted to use its results, they figured they shouldn't hike up the bell curve by answering?)
The responding schools reported annual tuition charges from $1,600 to $52,200. Only six private schools are clearly unaffordable for low-income families the new voucher law is primarily intended to serve. Those six were omitted from Sutherland’s results.
Sutherland's website calls this an "adjusted average." Hey, Mom, I got an F in Social Studies, but I have omitted it from my results. So now I have an adjusted B average! P.S. If vouchers are intended primarily to serve low-income families, why aren't they limited to low-income families?
“In addition to being affordable, private schools in Utah are also convenient and accessible. These are important factors for the families that vouchers are primarily intended to serve,” said Mero. “The current supply of private schools in Utah is within close proximity to 85 percent of Utah’s school-age population.”
Is this a research report or a travel brochure? Knowing Mero's definition of "affordability," I shudder to think how he defines "close proximity."

From its research conducted in August 2007, Sutherland Institute found that there are private schools in 17 of Utah’s 29 counties.
Which counties? And as the word "private" is not preceded by "voucher-eligible," does this figure include all private schools? How was the list compiled? Hate to pester you about research, but...

Most private, public and charter schools are concentrated in the Wasatch corridor and the St. George area. In the most recent school year, these areas accounted for 85 percent of school-age children in Utah – which means the majority of school-age children have access to private schools that meet the qualifications to accept vouchers.

Are there private schools in St. George? We assume so, but they don't even bother to say it. How do they define "Wasatch corridor"? How do they define "access"? Within a few blocks of a bus route or Trax station (or however far Sutherland Institute personnel let their kids travel unattended to school)? Less than a 5-mile drive? 40 miles? And how many of these "voucher-eligible" schools will in fact accept vouchers? Some have already said they will not.

We would actually like to know this information, so we surfed over to the Institute's web site, hoping to find the details. No luck, other than this one-page brochure that jacks up the affordability quotient even more by including tuitions of up to $5,000 per year, assuming that everyone will get private scholarships and that poor people won't notice a $166 (or $332 for two kids) hit in their monthly income.

Give us a break. When a "research institute" spews out vague, slanted junk like this instead of detailed, at least semi-objective analysis, it does not do anyone any good. Information about private school tuition in Utah could be useful; let's hope someone like the Trib or the News gives us some.


rmwarnick said...

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, a $3,000 voucher won't cover tuition except at Utah's 14 Catholic schools-- and they are nearly full already.

Jennifer Killpack-Knutsen said...

Excellent analysis.

It's obvious Mero has never been low income if he thinks that $127 a month is an easy payment -- If I had to ad $127 a month to my bills, I'd have to sell the car . . .

Derek said...

I did the research that the Sutherland Institute summarized in its press release. It seems clear to me after reading this blog post that your intent had nothing to do with a rigorous investigation into truth or fact, so I will attempt to answer some of your criticisms and do the work you were unwilling to do.

First a little background, the topic we were investigating at Sutherland with this research was how vouchers affect affordability of private schooling for low-income families. This leads to the research question we wanted to answer: will vouchers bring a significant number of private schools within financial reach of low-income families? For high end schools (annual tuition over $10,000), the answer is obviously no. By excluding these schools then, we are now looking at whether vouchers will bring low to medium end schools within reach. If a signficant number of these schools are not within reach for low-income families with a $3,000 voucher, we can conclude that vouchers will not help low-income families. As our results show however, vouchers do indeed bring low and medium end private schools within financial reach of low-income families: 64% of low and medium end private schools charge annual tuition under $4,500.

If you don't believe that this tuition level is "affordable" look at Children First Utah, a privately funded voucher program for low-income families only. Their scholarships are capped at 1/2 tuition, no matter what private school recipients attend (which is much less than would be covered by a $3,000 voucher at 64% of the low and medium end private schools). Children First Utah received over 1700 applications last year alone, giving away 375 scholarships. This shows that many low-income families expressed a willingness to pay a HIGHER proportion of private school tuition than a voucher would cover because their children don't fit the public school mold.

Your "the poorest families who would qualify for the $3,000-per-child max would hardly notice an extra $127 per month out of their paychecks" criticism is a straw man argument. We never make that claim (I'm talking to you as well jennifer). Of course they'll notice it, BUT THEY ARE WILLING TO PAY IT! That is our claim; that is what the facts show. Bottom line: $4,500 is an affordable tuition rate for many low-income families.

As a side note, these results show that your assertion relative to Catholic schools is false. There are only 14 Catholic schools in the state, and yet 37 schools in our survey charged annual tuition less than $4,500. You do the math: the majority of "affordable" schools are NOT Catholic. I noticed by the way that you failed to do any fact checking on the tribune article's assertions (or at least you didn't mention doing any). Why is that exactly?

The tuition question we asked was: "How much is your annual tuition?"

The counties that had private schools when we published our results were: Box Elder, Cache, Davis, Duschesne, Garfield, Grand, Iron, Kane, Salt Lake, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Summit, Tooele, Utah, Washington, and Weber. This information is easily accessible on the Utah State Office of Education's website. A newly updated private school list adds Piute county, making 18 of Utah's 29 counties with a private school in them.

The Wasatch corridor includes the folling areas: Cache County, a slim portion of Box Elder County, Weber County, Davis County, Salt Lake County, and Utah County. Why do we define it this way? Look at a topographical map and maybe you'll realize why (if you still have a hard time, give us a call). Yes there are private schools in St. George, four of them in fact. You could have found this out for yourself with another quick search on the Utah State Office of Education website.

If you really wanted to know the answers to any of the questions you raise in your post, why didn't you just pick up a phone? We aren't hiding the information; we couldn't if we wanted to (much of it came from publicly available sources like the Office of Education). It's obvious that your desire to "actually...know this information" only extends as far as it doesn't risk discovering facts that contradict your view of the world. Your accusation of our results as being "intentionally misleading" is truly ironic.