Quantcast

Utah's School Choice Lessons for Vermonters

The people have spoken in Utah, and the teachers' union won. Last February the Utah legislature passed, and Gov. Jon Huntsman signed, a modest parental choice bill. It provided that the parents of a lower income child could use from $500 to $3000 of public funds, depending on their income, to put their child in an independent school that they felt better suited their child's needs and interests. Since the average tuition for independent schools in low-spending Utah is around $4000 a year, the modest scholarship amount would likely give Utah parents a range of affordable choices. The choice bill passed the legislature, narrowly, only after its backers tossed in a very big plum for the public schools. If a child took $2000 off to an independent school, the public school could still count the pupil for five more years. The public school would get to keep the $7,500 it gets from the state for educating the now-departed pupil, less the $2000 that the pupil took out the door. The cost of the scholarship program would have been paid from the state's general funds, not from property taxes. A Utah State University study concluded that over 13 years Utah public schools would likely receive an extra $1 billion from this plan, for doing nothing at all. As former Delaware Gov. Pete duPont observed, "the 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." But the Utah Education Association, that state's counterpart of the Vermont-NEA, screamed "NO". The minute the bill passed the legislature, the mighty machinery of the NEA and its union allies went into overdrive. The union forced a referendum on the act. Into Utah poured millions of dollars in teachers' union money. The Utah Education Association taxed its teachers to produce at least $240,000 to beat down the parents. The NEA itself sent $3 million to Utah, and a national group named "Communities for Quality Education", an NEA front, shipped in $336,000. State NEA unions added to the battle fund: California $50,000, Montana $25,000, Washington $7,500, At least twelve other NEA affiliates sent lesser amounts. On the parental choice side of the issue, the main funding came from Patrick Byrne, the idealistic CEO of an internet retailer called overstock.com. On November 6 the voters hammered down the school choice law by a margin of 62-38. The Utah result once again reveals several sad truths about statewide campaigns on school choice issues, twelve of which have now fallen to teachers' union counter attacks. That first truth is that other than some (but far from all) parents of schoolchildren, a few citizens who want to improve education through competition and choice, and a few more who have a direct interest in independent schools, most voters don't have a dog in this fight. If the opponents of choice can cast any reasonable doubt on a school choice proposal, voters will tend to go against it. The second truth is that, not surprisingly, the people whose livelihood is best served by a government monopoly school system - notably the unionized teachers in it - will move heaven and earth to protect that monopoly. That explains the millions of union dollars that flowed into Utah, and the adamant union opposition to expanding school choice in Vermont. The third truth is that parental choice aimed at lower income pupils is a hard sell to voters in suburban communities that are too expensive to have any lower-income residents. Many of these voters fear that "those other kids" will come flocking out of the inner city to drag down their nice suburban schools. Vermonters are taxing themselves some $1.4 billion a year - most of it through property taxes - to pay to give their kids an education. One would think that the leading policy issue would be, "how can we get the best possible education for our kids with that large amount of tax dollars?" Or "how can we get as good an education for our kids with a less painful tax burden?" But alas, the majority in Montpelier frames the issue as "what do we need to do to strengthen the public school monopoly for the benefit of the politically powerful people who profit by it (and elect us), regardless of what's best for Vermont's kids?"

0
Vote on this Story by clicking on the Icon

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment