Unions 2, Children 1
School choice goes down to defeat in Utah.
BY PETE DU PONT
Monday, November 12, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
One hundred eleven years ago, in 1896, the state of Utah joined the Union. Today its Legislature is focused on enacting sound policies that will help improve its education system. Its citizens, though, have a different view, for in Tuesday's referendum they voted down a very strong parental school choice bill.
Last February the Utah Legislature enacted the Parent Choice in Education Act, giving parents the option of a $500 to $3,000 scholarship, depending upon their household income, to send their child to the private school of their choice instead of the public school they are attending. Since there are 120 private schools in Utah, with an average tuition of about $4,000, the scholarships would help low-income families get the best education for their children and give Utah parents substantial educational choice.
School choice is not a new idea--there are voucher programs operating in about a dozen states--but the Utah program reflected some fresh thinking. The average cost of the scholarships would be about $2,000 a student, so lawmakers decided to increase support of the state's public schools by allowing them to keep the difference between the cost of educating each of their students--about $7,500 per child--and the scholarships when a child left their school. For each student who chose to move to a private school, his former public school would get the $5,500 difference for five years, after which it would go back to the state's education budget. Utah State University estimated this would give the public schools about $1 billion in additional funding over 13 years.
The cost of the scholarships would be paid from the state's general funds, not from state school funds or local property taxes, costing the Utah government about $5.5 million in the first year and $8.5 million in the second as more children took advantage of the opportunity to go to the private school of their choice, and up to $71 million in the 13th year.
This scholarship program would make public schools better because class sizes would be smaller and more money would be available per pupil. Education would improve, and the scholarships would help level the playing field by giving educational opportunities to families with lower incomes.
School choice and charter schools have proved very effective in improving the quality of education. Milwaukee has had a school choice program since 1990, and a 2004 study showed that vouchers students the previous year had a 64% graduation rate, vs. just 36% for the public schools. A Texas study showed that students at charter schools had a significantly higher increase in performance than their peers in traditional public schools.
And Utah has been on the leading edge of school choice for many years. An initial charter bill was enacted in 1998, challenged and then upheld by the Utah Supreme Court. In 2001 school districts were given the right to approve charter schools. In 2004, lawmakers considered a bill providing a refundable income tax credit for a family's private school expenses. It didn't pass, but the Legislature approved a study of the bill which concluded it could save the state $1.3 billion over 13 years. In 2005, a law was enacted to provide vouchers for special education students, and a school-choice bill nearly passed. When it fell short, House Speaker Greg Curtis lamented, "We do not reward excellence in education. We don't fund it, we don't demand it, and don't encourage it."
That improved with the enactment of the Parent Choice in Education statute last February, but on Tuesday it all fell apart. Utah citizens voted down the voucher plan by 62% to 38%. That is too bad--educational choices by parents for their children is an important concept--but not surprising. While there are successful school choice programs operating in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, 10 state referenda on various voucher proposals have been defeated since 1972, including two defeats each in California, Michigan and Colorado.
One reason for these defeats has been the work of the teachers unions, which oppose school choice of any kind because it limits their power. Passage of the Utah school choice statute earlier this year prompted a union call to arms. The national teachers unions went to war in Utah and won.
When the choice bill was passed by the Utah Legislature last winter, Nancy Pomeroy of Parents Choice in Education enthusiastically recited the score: "Parents and Children 1. Unions and Educrats 0." Unfortunately the score flipped on Tuesday. Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com and a major backer of the measure, was bitter, saying of Utahns: "They don't care enough about their kids. They care an awful lot about this system, this bureaucracy, but they don't care enough about their kids to think outside the box."
Mr. du Pont, a former governor of Delaware, is chairman of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis. His column appears once a month.