Utah Creates Nation’s First Universal School Voucher Program

Published April 1, 2007

In early February, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) signed the nation’s first law allowing all children to use state-funded scholarships to attend the school of their choice–a move some say might be the beginning of several such state laws nationwide.

“For parents, this is reaffirmation of their right and responsibility to give their children the best possible education,” said Elisa Peterson, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, a Utah-based organization. “We firmly believe that parents are best able and have the best interest in deciding what’s good for their child’s education. School vouchers give parents the opportunity to put their child in any school they choose.”

The Parent Choice in Education Act provides vouchers worth between $500 and $3,000 per student, depending on family income, allowing the parents of all public school children statewide to send their students to the school of their choice.

Low-income children already attending private school are also eligible. At press time, the Utah Board of Education expected to have an application process in place by May 15. It plans to start distributing vouchers by August 15.

National Impact

Though school voucher programs have existed across the nation for nearly 17 years, until now they have operated only on a city level (Cleveland, Milwaukee) or been limited to disabled students (Florida’s McKay Scholarships, Utah’s Carson Smith program).

“Utah’s universal school voucher program shows that this can now be passed,” said Robert Enlow, executive director of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, a national school choice advocacy group based in Indianapolis, which worked with Utah legislators and policy advocates on the issue for the past six years. “If those of us in the movement trumpet this victory, we can show that school vouchers can work, and it will have an impact around the country.”

One Utah legislator disagreed.

“Just because one state passes universal school vouchers, does not mean it is something that will happen elsewhere,” said state Sen. Gene Davis (D-Salt Lake), who voted against the measure. “A lot of money was spent last fall in lobbying for the election of candidates that are supportive of school vouchers. Over $500,000 was spent in getting those representatives elected.”

Robert Fanger, the Friedman Foundation’s public relations specialist, said polls conducted in late 2006 in Indiana, Missouri, and New Hampshire “show higher public support for universal school choice as opposed to targeted. Now that Utah has proven universal choice can pass, there will be many more [proposals] on the horizon.”

Healthy Competition

Peterson said the bill will create healthy competition for public schools statewide.

“The fact that more kids are able to choose private schools over public schools creates an incentive for public schools to reevaluate performance,” Peterson said. “[Public school administrators] will ask, ‘What can we do better to meet the needs of parents and students? How can we keep them happy and in our schools?’

“These vouchers will make public schools more introspective,” Peterson added. “Private, charter, and public schools will all be competing for students and working to help them do better.”

Davis said public schools are competitive enough already.

“I think there is plenty of competition with an open school system,” Davis said. “We have open enrollment throughout the state, so parents can choose to place their child in any school in the system.”

Fear of Competition

Because the vouchers are funded by tax dollars, Davis said accountability will be a problem.

“This is nothing more than taking public dollars out of the public education system and giving them to private entrepreneurs,” Davis said. “The public schools system will be here tomorrow as it was yesterday. We will continue to fund public education even if it means with less money. But there is no guarantee that any private school will be here at the end of the year.”

Davis added, “There is no real accountability for private schools in this bill. The testing requirements for private schools are held at a different outcome standard than the public system.”

Serious Accountability

But supporters of the plan note the new law places several accountability measures on private schools accepting vouchers.

The law requires schools to apply for eligibility; administer a national, norm-referenced test and make the results accessible to parents and the legislative auditor general; employ teachers with either bachelor’s degrees or special skills and experience in their subject areas; disclose all teachers’ relevant credentials; release their schools’ accreditation status; be audited annually for fiscal soundness; enroll at least 40 students; and not operate out of a residence.

“Because tax dollars are being used,” Peterson explained, “the legislation calls for accountability through student testing. Private schools face the ultimate accountability because parents can take their children out of their schools and force them to close if there aren’t enough pupils.

“It comes down to control,” Peterson continued. “The philosophy that parents aren’t good enough or smart enough to make decisions for their children’s education is what feeds the opinion of voucher opponents. Do you trust parents, or do you trust the government in deciding how children are educated? That’s what this comes down to–and we trust parents.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

Parent Choice in Education Act, http://le.utah.gov/~2007/bills/hbillenr/hb0148.htm