Next Tuesday, Utah voters go to the polls to decide if their state will become the first in the nation to offer school vouchers statewide. Referendum 1 would make all public-school kids eligible for vouchers worth from $500 to $3,000 a year, depending on family income. Parents could then use the vouchers to send their children to private schools.
What a great idea. Finally, parents will have choices that wealthy parents have always had. The resulting competition would create better private schools and even improve the government schools.
But wait. Arrayed against the vouchers are the usual opponents. They call themselves Utahns for Public Schools. They include, predictably, the Utah Education Association (the teachers union), Utah School Boards Association, Utah School Employees Union, Utah School Superintendents Association, the elementary and secondary school principals associations, and the PTA. No to vouchers! they protest. Trust us. We know what's best for your kids.
They say they're all for improving education but not by introducing choice. "When it comes to providing every Utah child with a quality education, we believe, as do most Americans, that our greatest hope for success is investing in research-proven reforms. These include the things parents and teachers know will make a difference in the classroom, such as smaller class sizes and investment in teacher development programs. Focusing on this type of reform will bring far greater success than diverting tax dollars to an alternative education system."
Please. I've heard that song for years. Government schools in America fail while spending on average more than $11,000 per student. Utah spends $7,500. Think what an innovative education entrepreneur would do with so much money. It's more than $150,000 per classroom!
The answer to mediocre public schooling isn't to give a government monopoly more "teacher development programs." The answer is competition.
Bureaucrats and unions tremble at the thought. On my "20/20" special on education, one teacher had the nerve to sneer, "Competition is not for children!" The opposite is true. Competition and choice mean parent power. It's parents whom the education lobby really fears. The last thing it wants is a system in which parents choose their children's schools. Parents might not choose the union-dominated establishment schools. Better not take that chance.
Opponents of choice managed to win a referendum on the law, hoping voters will veto it. I hope they don't.
Vouchers will make schools accountable to parents rather than a bureaucracy. Principals and administrators will have to convince parents that they are doing a good job. That's real accountability. And the Utah law requires private schools to submit to independent financial audits and give students a nationally recognized test each year. The results would be publicly disclosed, giving parents information they can use to judge schools.
This anti-voucher coalition says vouchers will only benefit children who would have gone to private schools anyway. But the Vote for 1 Campaign points out that current private-school students would get vouchers only if their families are low-income. So the law would give new opportunities to parents and children who today have no options at all.
The coalition claims that "vouchers will cost at least $429 million funds that could be used in public schools to reduce class size, provide textbooks and supplies." But voucher supporters note that since an average voucher would be worth only $2,000 and the state spends more than $7,500 per student, government schools would have $5,500 more per lost student to spend on the remaining students. They should be happy about that.
For over a century, American children have been in the hands of education bureaucrats. For over 40 years, the government's system has been dominated by a protectionist teachers' union that puts itself ahead of the children entrusted to its members. The results are what we should expect from a monopoly financed with money extracted from taxpayers: poor quality, lack of innovation and bored children.
The parents of Utah should be the envy of the rest of the country because on Tuesday, they have a chance to take back control of their children's education.