When the Utah House of Representatives passed a bill for universal school vouchers Feb. 1, state PTA president Carmen Snow informed reporters, "I just want to cry." The razor-thin 38-37 vote provoked such melancholy among proponents of monopolized public education nationwide.
Meanwhile, advocates for school choice celebrated what could prove a landmark victory. The bill is expected to cruise past Utah's Republican-controlled Senate and GOP governor Jon Huntsman Jr. (pictured), establishing the country's first statewide voucher program for all students.
Under the "Parents Choice in Education Act," any public-school student could receive between $500 and $3,000 depending on family income to help pay for a switch to private-school tuition. Among students already enrolled in private schools, only those with low incomes would be eligible for the program. But all new kindergartners would qualify, opening the voucher system to everyone by 2020.
Numerous prior attempts to pass such legislation in the Utah House stalled as opponents decried the redirection of funding away from public schools. This bill undermines that charge by granting public schools funding for departed students up to five years after they leave. That provision will increase the public schools' dollars per student as more families opt out, potentially reaching an equilibrium whereby public schools have the increased financial resources to deliver strong competition to their private counterparts.
In the run-up to the House vote, Rep. Steve Urquhart, the bill's chief sponsor, argued passionately on his website, politicopia.com, that public schools would financially benefit from the voucher program. He challenged all comers to prove otherwise, which they could not.
Such productive bottom-line debates helped knife through the rhetoric of church-state separation that often bogs down discussions of school choice. Urquhart succeeded in convincing at least one fellow legislator to abandon his past anti-voucher commitments. Rep. Brad Last, a former public-school official who voted against vouchers as a member of the Education Committee, shocked the chamber with a yes vote this time around. "I believe history will demonstrate to supporters and detractors that this is a good choice," he said. "To those of you in public education who want to kill me right now, I'm really sorry. I understand your pain. I would ask you, go read this bill, and don't say a word to me until you read this bill."
Voucher advocates and opponents throughout the country are reading the bill closely as its language may soon begin popping up in a number of state legislatures. The voucher movement has generated considerable progress in recent years, providing pockets of school choice in such cities as Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Cleveland. Arizona offers tax credits for donations to private-school scholarship funds, an allowance that has withstood numerous court challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Studies of these various school-choice programs reveal far higher satisfaction rates among parents and measurably higher achievement levels among students. Nevertheless, teachers unions and strict church-state separatists remain fiercely committed to maintaining centralized public control of K-12 education. They contend that private schools lack accountability to maintain high academic standards and that parents choosing to spend tax dollars on religious schools amounts to a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause.
But such arguments may be losing traction among the American public. A Utah poll conducted last month for local news outlets found that 48 percent of state residents favor voucher or tax-credit programs while 46 percent oppose them. Those numbers represent substantial movement from last year's poll when 54 percent opposed and 40 percent supported. Should national opinion mirror that trend, Utah may be only the beginning.