Non-government schools must meet rigid state standards to participate. The schools must give students nationally approved achievement tests. The results of the testing must then be given to state officials and parents. The schools must meet important accountability standards and disclose credentials of educators as well as the institution's own accreditation status. Independent auditors also must pour through the school's financial records and report the information to the state.
Under the program, vouchers can only be used at non-government schools. Before parents are given access to the scholarship funds, they must actively opt their children out of a conventional public school. When parents opt their children out of a conventional public school, the state will continue to fund that school - for five years - as if the students never left. Therefore, if a public school loses a significant number of students, it will have a few years to address the root causes of the departures before state funding is shifted.
The program seems to address the most often mentioned concerns of school choice opponents. It provides for non-government school accountability.
It continues to fund underperforming government-run public schools and gives those schools five years to get their act together. And, it serves a very real public need - the need for quality enhancing, freedom-expanding competition in the education marketplace.
Parents want the empowerment that comes with educational choice. Pilot voucher programs in cities like New York, Cleveland, and Milwaukee are consistently overwhelmed with tens of thousands of applicants for a few hundred slots. Parents in those cities desperately want to rescue their children from failing public schools and unresponsive education bureaucrats.
Utahns are no different.
"With vouchers, parents can find the education that is best for their children," the spokeswoman for Utah's Parents for Choice in Education, Nancy Pomeroy, told the Desert Morning News.
Entrenched teachers' unions and their supporters see things differently. "This has nothing to do about educating children," State Senator Gene Davis, a Democrat, told the Associated Press. "It's about taking taxpayer dollars and giving them to private industry."
Not really. It's about letting taxpayers make their own decisions with their money. Parents most certainly qualify as taxpayers.
The senator's comments may confound parents, but they shed light on the fact that for school choice opponents it's really not about educating children. For them, it's about collective bargaining, retirement benefits, and lowered accountability.
How can we forget the infamous words of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, who said, "When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children."
I doubt Utah's school choice advocates will let the voters forget this come November.
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