Unions Frantic: Will School Choice Referendum Prevail in Utah?

No one says, “As goes Utah, so goes the nation,” but what happens over the next month in the Beehive State may well affect the prospects for education reform nationwide. Last February, Utah’s Republican Gov. John Huntsman signed into law an education voucher bill that promised to help the parents of Utah’s 512,000 public school students send their children to the school of their choice—public or private. The Parent Choice in Education Act was subsequently challenged and a referendum has put the issue before the state’s voters on November 6. A majority vote is needed to uphold school choice.

Educated for Less

It’s estimated that the average voucher ($500 to $3,000 per child, depending on family income) will be less than one third of Utah’s per pupil expenditure in the public schools ($7,100). But when Utah parents use a voucher for private schooling, the state’s public school systems will still get to keep, for another five years, most of the state money that would otherwise go for the child’s public school education. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too. Still, as more Utah children are educated for less than one third the cost of public education, it could save state taxpayers more than $1 billion over 13 years.
Naturally, the teacher unions and other liberal interest groups are out in full force to repeal the measure by defeating the referendum. The National Education Association (NEA) has funneled $1.5 million to Utah from its Washington, D.C., headquarters and state and local NEA unions from Colorado and Wyoming to Ohio and Maine have contributed thousands more. A consortium called Utahans for Public Schools has added the political muscle of the Utah PTA, the ACLU and the local NAACP chapter to attack school choice. Radio and TV ads have been airing across the state for months.

Why is the Utah proposal generating such a furious reaction? The unions know that if the Utah proposal passes, it means white middle-class America will become fully committed to the battle over school choice. Up until now, school choice has found the most support among minorities. A recent survey sponsored by Harvard University found that African-Americans (68%) and Hispanic-Americans (61%) are much more supportive of vouchers than white Americans (38%). That is because it is minority parents whose children are trapped in failing inner-city schools. Unlike moderate-income white parents, black and Hispanic parents usually don’t have access to most private schools, which is why vouchers have done so well in a handful of urban communities, such as Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.

But Utah could change all that. First, the state’s voucher program is not restricted to a largely black urban community, but includes every public school student in a state that is 84% white. Second, the program goes into effect in a state whose public schools are already quite good. Utah public schools rank near the top in achievement and other quality measures when compared to other states. If Utah parents, who are rightfully supportive of their public schools, vote “yes” to more choice in education, they will show that voucher supporters are not hostile to public education. A “yes” vote simply means parents want to make schools better by encouraging choice and competition. A “yes” vote means Utah wants to create school accountability by giving parents an opportunity to “vote with their feet.” If the Utah proposal succeeds, then vouchers become a mainstream issue. No wonder the unions are frantic.

Cold Feet

Unfortunately, Gov. Huntsman recently got cold feet. After signing the bill in the spring, the governor has been largely silent on the issue. He reaffirms, when asked, that he supports the program, yet he refuses to get involved in the battle to save the program, leaving many voucher supporters feeling abandoned in the trenches. In his recent monthly radio broadcast, Huntsman said that he didn’t want to become an “ad pitch person” for vouchers because, as he mentioned several times, there are a “multiplicity of educational issues” that he has to deal with as governor. And those issues might require union support.