Utah House Passes Universal Voucher Bill

Published March 1, 2007

On February 2, the Utah House of Representatives passed, by a 38-37 vote, a landmark measure that would give Utah the nation’s first statewide universal voucher program.

The Parent Choice in Education Act, H.B. 148, would give all parents in Utah a voucher valued between $500 and $3,000 per school-age child (depending on family income) for use at the school of their choice. State Rep. Steve Urquhart (R-St. George) was the bill’s chief sponsor.

“I am proud of the House of Representatives for passing this important piece of legislation,” said Greg Curtis (R-Sandy), Speaker of the House. “This historic bill offers the first statewide voucher system for all parents. More importantly, it offers a choice in education for the students of Utah.”

Parents and Children Win

“It was a long, hard fight,” said Nancy Pomeroy, communications director for Parents for Choice in Education, which rallied grassroots support for the measure. “But the score is in: Parents and Children 1. Unions and Educrats 0.

“Since the vote,” Pomeroy continued, “we’ve had many middle- and low-income parents tell us that they are so happy, they want to cry. Now their children can get the same education opportunities as children from wealthy families.”

“The Utah House vote is an important advance in the fight to provide parents with meaningful education alternatives,” noted George Clowes, a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute. Although the maximum voucher is only half what Utah’s public schools spend per student, Clowes said “it will probably be sufficient to spur an expansion of existing private school capacity and the entry of new education providers.”

‘Smooth Sailing’

The measure “now faces relatively smooth sailing,” noted Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund on February 4. The state Senate “twice before has voted for a similar program,” he wrote, and “Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, won election in 2004 in part by campaigning for school choice.”

Pomeroy agreed. “We are confident that H.B. 148 will pass the Senate,” she said. “Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble (R-Provo) has said the Senate, which is more than two-thirds Republican, is expected to favor the bill.”

‘A Fitting Tribute’

More than 50 years ago, Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman outlined a vision for universal school choice. With his essay “On the Role of Government in Education,” Friedman became the father of the modern school choice movement. He died in November 2006 at the age of 94.

“Utah is a fitting tribute to Milton Friedman … and proof that universal school choice can pass a state legislative body,” noted Robert Enlow, executive director and COO of the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

“Milton Friedman had a dream: that all parents would have an unfettered choice of schooling, public or private, for their children,” noted Robert Holland, a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute. “The Utah House’s passage of the Parent Choice in Education Act has brought the Friedman dream of universal vouchers closer to realization than ever.

“Over the past quarter-century, school choice has gained momentum with the advent of praiseworthy voucher and tax-credit programs targeted to needy children,” said Holland. “Dr. Friedman applauded such initiatives, but his dream was bigger than that. If all families could use public vouchers for schools of their choosing, healthy competition would force public as well as private schools to improve or go out of business. As a result, a community’s educational system would flourish.”

Model for Others?

Holland suggested the Utah measure might pave the way for dramatic reforms nationwide. “If the Friedman ‘Free to Choose’ model takes hold in Utah,” he said, “it is likely that parents in many other states will come to want the same degree of consumer clout to exercise on behalf of their children.”

Diane Carol Bast ([email protected]) is executive editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

“Somewhere, Milton Is Smiling,” Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2007, http://www.opinionjournal.com/diary/?id=110009624

Parents for Choice in Education, http://www.choiceineducation.org/index.php

The Sutherland Institute, http://www.sutherlandinstitute.org/

Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/