For many liberals and conservatives, the pivotal battleground this election season isn't Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. It's Utah. There, a fight over the state's universal K-12 school choice program portends to be the trip wire for the school choice movement across the country.
Utah is the location of the fault line between those who would prod conventional public schools out of their mediocrity and those 21st century Luddites who will protect the status quo to their death. The latter group's battle cry is, "Entrenched bureaucracy forever!"
Earlier this year, Utah's legislature and governor - in the state's rugged western tradition - bucked the powerful teachers' unions and provided parents with true educational choices for their children. The groundbreaking initiative was met with substantial indignation by state and national teacher union bosses who immediately filed petitions to do away with the new law.
Ironically, as the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights struggle for access to quality education in Little Rock, Ark., these unions have been morphed into the George Wallaces, Lester Maddoxes, and other freedom deniers of our times.
The head of Utah's largest teachers' union promised an "ugly, mean and expensive" campaign, and the National Education Association has given her $3 million to wage it. That's a lot of money in a state with one media market. School choice advocates have pledged to raise and spend whatever necessary to protect the program. They seem ready to blunt the union's trademark bare-knuckle tactics in defense of their children's civil rights.
In fact, grassroots groups like Parents for Choice in Education and child-centered school choice advocates like Dr. Patrick Byrne of Overstock.com are on the front line of this fight. They seem to have the will and fire power necessary to win this battle.
If they succeed in defending the law, school choice advocates will give Utah's parents a valuable educational tool and the nation will have a universal school choice model to evaluate and, if successful, emulate.
Called the Parents Choice in Education Act, the program was carefully crafted to address the concerns typically associated with previous voucher-driven school choice programs.
Children receive between $500 and $3,000 in scholarships depending on their parents' income. Every child currently in public school can participate. Children attending independent schools will be evaluated according to criteria such as prior qualification for federal lunch programs where lunch is either free or at a reduced cost. Students entering kindergarten this year are immediately eligible, with all students qualifying by 2020.