Utah Voucher Plan Succumbs to Misinformation Ad Campaign

Published November 9, 2007

On November 6, the nation’s first statewide universal voucher program was defeated in Utah when voters repealed, through referendum, the law that created it last February. More than 60 percent voted for repeal.

Voucher advocates were massively outspent by teachers unions during the campaign. As a result, low-income children and racial minorities will continue to be trapped in a failing public school system, without the options enjoyed by their better-off white peers.

‘Complacent in Prosperity’

“I’ve come to a sobering conclusion,” said Paul T. Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, a free-market think tank in Salt Lake City. “I believe that Utah’s old pioneer stock–the predominantly white ancestors of the Latter-day pioneers–have become complacent in their prosperity, and this complacency is what prevents many of them from relating to the struggles of their low-income, minority neighbors.”

Mero characterized the results as only a temporary setback–the referendum vote concerned only a state spending bill, not vouchers in general. The state’s Carson Smith voucher program for special-needs students remains in place, and support for school choice is growing among families nationwide.

“Win or lose, this new school voucher law will not go away,” Mero said. “And try as they might, the special interests who would subordinate struggling children to a stifling ‘system’ will find themselves on the losing side of history.”

Effort Will Continue

School choice advocates agreed.

“The school choice movement, like any movement for reform, experiences the jubilation of successes and the disappointments of defeats,” said Andrew Campanella, director of communications at the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Washington, DC. “We have seen disadvantaged parents rise up and demand options for their children and win.

“More than 100,000 children are the beneficiaries of a better education because of private school choice in America–more than ever before,” Campanella noted. “And despite the tens of millions of dollars spent by opponents, the clear majority of the American public supports school choice.

“A setback in one state is just that–a setback in one state,” Campanella continued. “Today, school choice supporters across the country are rightly disappointed. But in our disappointment, we are emboldened to fight even harder to help the children in America who are too often forgotten.”

Big Union Money

According to campaign finance data, the great majority of the $4.4 million raised to defeat Utah’s program came from union sources nationwide. By contrast, pro-voucher forces raised more than three-quarters of the approximately $4 million they collected from in-state sources.

Tellingly, noted Bob Williams, a choice advocate at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Washington, “When given a choice, the number of Utah teachers voluntarily contributing to the union’s political action committee declined from 68 percent to 5.18 percent,” meaning “the money used by the teachers union is coming from mandatory dues of teachers–it is not coming from voluntary contributions.”

Quin Monson, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, analyzed data on ad purchases on the five Salt Lake City television stations, which serve the entire state. According to his findings, voucher opponents outspent supporters five to one ($1,049,058 to $192,570) during September.

“The disproportionate advertising looks even worse when you look at the number of spots that have actually aired,” Monson noted. “Through the end of September, it was nearly seven to one for the anti-voucher side.”

Deceptive Ads

TV and radio spots and full-page newspaper ads before the vote claimed the program would drain money from already underfunded public schools and that it would racially segregate classrooms. None of those assertions hold up to scientific research, said Dr. John Merrifield, an economics professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio and editor of the Journal of School Choice, a scholarly research publication.

“This claim amounts to an assertion that a lot of us are closet racists, and that the first decent chance we get, we’ll move our children to schools where they will look just like the existing student body,” Merrifield said. However, “actual interaction between children of different races and socioeconomic levels is larger right now in private schools of choice than in public schools.

“School choice is already an integration tool–the more autonomous the schools, the more likely that choice will be driven by academic reasons than concern about student body composition,” Merrifield noted. “It would be very difficult to have more separation by socioeconomics and race than we have in the current system.”

Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, concurred.

“Correctly understood, school choice programs are not a threat to public education, they are simply public education by other means,” Coulson said. “Some people worry that a system of unfettered parental choice would fail to promote social cohesion–something that our public schools are widely believed to do. That view is precisely backward.

“There are numerous studies comparing the tolerance and civic engagement of public and private school students and graduates,” Coulson continued, “and this research either favors the private schools or finds no significant differences between the sectors.”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) writes from Pennsylvania. School Reform News Managing Editor Karla Dial ([email protected]) contributed to this report.