Voices

Gloomy outlook for vouchers

What didn't work in Utah probably won't make it elsewhere, either

Issue: "Giving thanks," Nov. 24, 2007

I was disappointed-and not just a little bit-when voters in Utah on Nov. 6 shot down a school voucher program that had potential for changing the face of education nationwide. The 60-40 defeat puts a gloomy face on future prospects for vouchers everywhere.

It was the best chance vouchers had had anywhere in the United States, and it went down to such costly and ignominious defeat that it's hard to imagine where or how voucher supporters will even make another attempt. The Utah proposal had been carefully constructed by its backers, passed handily by the state legislature, signed by the governor, and was ready to be implemented.

But then the obviously fearful and jealous public-school lobby went into action. "What could possibly be fairer," these plotters proposed, "than to take this to the people of Utah and get them to vote on the whole proposal?"

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Such a vote might have been fair-if everyone had been committed to telling the truth.

The Utah proposal had actually gone far out of its way to make the public-school establishment happy. Where Utah had been spending an average of about $7,500 per student throughout its system, the new program would have provided an average voucher of $2,000 per student for families with children headed for non-public schools-with the difference of $5,500 still going to the public schools even though they wouldn't have to provide any services at all for such a generous payment. In other words, the more students enrolling in non-public schools, the better off the public system would be!

But the public-school establishment, even though it would have ended up financially better off, knew it couldn't afford to allow the success of such a precedent. Backed by both the local and the national teachers unions (the National Education Association), opponents of the voucher proposal launched an expensive and scurrilous campaign. Central to the NEA's dishonest criticism was the complaint that education provided by users of the vouchers would not be sufficiently "accountable" and would be substandard.

Sadly, the scare campaign worked. The monopoly has been maintained, and not just in Utah. A message has been sent to every quarter to the effect that the NEA can't tolerate any experiment that jeopardizes its control of the nation's educational machinery.

The NEA and its 50 different state affiliates know they're in a war, and they don't mind using a centuries-old tactic of war: Inflict economic ruin and financial devastation on your enemy. Do everything you can to cripple their checkbooks.

So long as the public-school system can force everyone who doesn't want its product to pay twice to send their kids to school, their system will have an enormous advantage. It isn't unusual these days for parents who choose Christian schools to have to invest $50,000 to $100,000 per child in a K-12 education. Because those who choose homeschooling typically elect to forfeit the earnings of at least one parent during the school years, their investment is similarly staggering.

And don't kid yourself. It is the purpose of the NEA and the teachers unions to keep opponents on the economic ropes. In Utah, folks who wanted an alternative to the public system thought they had designed a modest and fair proposal. But even that was too much for the union crowd. They have a monopoly, and they want their control to be complete.

Vouchers, to be sure, aren't a perfect answer to the problems of educational monopolies. It's true that if the money comes from the government (state or federal), some kinds of control are almost certain to follow.

But the government doesn't tell the users of food stamps that there's only one grocery store in town where they can shop, or the patrons of Medicare that they can go to only one doctor. It makes no more sense for the government to say that only one set of schools will be permitted to use public funds for education. Maybe we'll just have to find some system other than vouchers to make that simple point.

There is a little silver lining in the Utah clouds. At least now, when that arrogant and obnoxious monopoly finally creaks to a disastrous collapse, there won't be any doubt about whose fault it was.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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