The late Milton Friedman, who was the nation's foremost advocate for school choice, would be more than pleased with the news coming out of Utah. By a vote of 38-37, the Utah House last Thursday approved the first-ever statewide universal school choice plan.
Despite the close vote, the program now faces relatively smooth sailing. The bill now goes to the state Senate, which twice before has voted for a similar program. Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, won election in 2004 in part by campaigning for school choice, and he has said he will likely sign the final bill.
Utah's plan is modest, and at the same time revolutionary. It would reimburse parents sending their children to private schools between $500 and $3,000 a year based on their family income. Parents whose kids currently attend private school would not be eligible unless their income was low enough. But all new kindergartners would qualify, so that by 2020 all private school students would be eligible for vouchers.
State Rep. Steve Urquhart, the bill's chief sponsor, says the breakthrough in winning House approval was the realization that it wouldn't harm public education. The bill stipulated that for five years after a voucher student left the public system, the district would get to keep much of the money the state had paid for his education. Given that the average district gets $3,500 from the state and the average voucher is expected to be $2,000, a typical school district would gain some $1,500 every time a student left its system.
Mr. Urquhart was so confident of his math that he started an interactive Web site modeled after the interactive encyclopedia Wikipedia. He posted his bill on it and invited comments. Thousands of people logged on to www.politicopia.com and participated. "If anyone can show evidence (not just alarmist rhetoric) that public education does not come out financially ahead with this bill, post your arguments and data in the comment section," Mr. Urquhart challenged his readers. No one was able to effectively rebut him.
By the time the bill came up for a floor vote, the debate was more philosophical and substantive than demagogic. "The debate was of the highest caliber that I've seen in my 13 years here," said Speaker Greg Curtis. "I find it fascinating that not a single person spread the myth that [choice] would be harmful to public education."
There are other reasons that school choice supporters were able to surmount the political odds and win in Utah. It's worth pondering them as the battle to offer parents alternatives to the one-size-fits-all public-school model moves to other states.
• School choice supporters were persistent and relentless. Doug Holmes, chairman of Parents for Choice in Education, and Patrick Byrne, chairman of Overstock.com, are both passionate believers that every child deserves a quality education. Although Utah is known for its large Mormon population (62% as of 2004), Mr. Holmes points out that the biggest beneficiaries from the enhanced options parents will have in Utah will be the state's surging Hispanic population, now about one-ninth of Utah's 2.6 million people.
Mr. Byrne gave $500,000 last year to fund private scholarships for low-income children. He also gave money to a political action committee that leveled the playing field in education politics by ensuring that school choice supporters wouldn't be steamrollered out of office by the powerful Utah Education Association. "It's no longer a question of legislators asking if they should vote their conscience or vote with the union," says Elisa Peterson, the director of Parents for Choice in Education. "Legislators who vote for school choice know we will be there to defend them — and if they vote against choice, they know there will be consequences. The teachers union isn't the only game in town anymore."
• A profile in courage. The choice bill would have gone down to defeat had Rep. Brad Last not changed his vote. Just last month, Mr. Last, himself a former public-school official, voted against the bill as a member of the Education Committee. Last Thursday, he voted "yes," prompting gasps from the visitor's gallery.
"I believe history will demonstrate to supporters and detractors that this is a good choice," he told a hushed chamber. "To those of you in public education who want to kill me right now, I'm really sorry. I understand your pain. I would ask you, go read this bill, and don't say a word to me until you read this bill."
Another surprise supporter of the bill was freshman Rep. Keith Grover, a vice principal at a junior high school, who said during the floor debate that "everyone knows how I make a living" and that he had wrestled with his conscience on how to vote. He said he believed public education needed the innovation that choice could bring.
• Public opinion matters. Over several years, school choice supporters were able to shift the debate in their direction. A poll taken last month for Salt Lake City's Deseret News and KSL-TV found that 48% of Utah residents favored a government voucher or tax-credit for private school tuition and 46% opposed the concept. A year earlier, the same poll gave choice opponents had the advantage by 54% to 40%.
Groups such as the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation were tireless promoters of the benefits of choice. They helped sponsor trips by public officials and civic leaders to Milwaukee, where they could see a functioning education alternative in action. "Public-school officials in Milwaukee told them that the city had redefined the concept of public education," says Robert Enlow, executive director of the Friedman Foundation. "It had become education that truly served the public, whether it be more flexible public schools, charter schools or private schools."
Gradually, the message sank in that choice was all about making public education work, rather than dismantling it. "I come from a family of eight children," says Ted Gardiner, a student from Taylorsville, Utah. "Each one of my siblings is a very unique individual. My mother has often said she wanted to sent me to a private school. However, eight children is a lot of mouths to feed, and it was never feasible for us." When school choice becomes law, it will be.
Rep. Urquhart said the public also responded to the argument that no school district would be docked money if students left for private schools, and indeed that such districts would actually gain income. He said it was a necessary political concession. "It doesn't make a lot of sense, if [districts] lose a student, to be financially rewarded," he told the Deseret News. But he said it was essential to communicate that the bill was about enhancing opportunity and not taking money from public education.
• Leadership counts. Rep. Curtis made it clear after he became House speaker in 2004 that school choice was a major priority for him. He steered a choice bill to within a few votes of victory in 2005 and vowed to try again. "We do not reward excellence in education," he told State Legislatures magazine. "We don't fund it, we don't demand it, and don't encourage it. If we did we would have every ability to compete at the global level in math and science."
Unions representing teachers and other government employees took notice of his apostasy and vowed to punish it. Last year, they mounted a concerted effort to defeat him. They came close; Mr. Curtis won re-election last November by only 20 votes. But far from being intimidated, the speaker realized that the best way he could survive politically was if he passed choice and made people realize it worked.
Rob Bishop is a former speaker of the Utah House who also worked as a high school teacher for 28 years before being elected to Congress as a Republican in 2002. He told me Mr. Curtis is demonstrating all the qualities of leadership voters say they want but don't always demand. "He understood he was on the right side of history," he says. After all, Mr. Bishop notes, that "choice in education is already all around us."
He's right. Kids under 5 now get federal day-care vouchers. College students get Pell grants. Even at the elementary and secondary levels, many kids with special educational or behavioral challenges are sent to private schools at state expense. Mr. Bishop says, "It makes sense to expand the existing choices we offer to every child in K-12, and that is what Utah is now leading the way in doing."