The Freedom Trip Wire

Ken Blackwell

9/13/2007 12:01:00 AM - Ken Blackwell

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.

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.