Voucher Movement Alive and Well Despite Recent Setback in Utah

Published January 1, 2008

On November 6, the nation’s first statewide universal voucher program was defeated in Utah by a referendum vote. Since then, major newspapers and magazines have run stories questioning whether vouchers are dead as a form of school choice–and others have stated so outright.

After all, they claim, if the idea won’t fly in Utah–arguably one of the most conservative states in the union–it’s a lead balloon everywhere else.

Left-leaning organizations and their allies in mainstream media would love for legislators to believe that–but experts, legislators, and voters say nothing could be further from the truth.

According to a poll conducted November 5-6–the same day Utah voters decided their referendum–strong support for all forms of school choice exists at the grassroots level. The poll, conducted by YouGov/Polimetrix on behalf of The Economist, found:

  • 53 percent of respondents favor vouchers;
  • 90 percent say vouchers should be used at any school of a parent’s choice, religious or not;
  • 69 percent would like vouchers to be available to everyone, not just students in public schools with low test scores and high dropout rates;
  • 61 percent think private schools in their area are generally better than the public schools; and
  • 67 percent say private schools give their students an edge in life.

Necessary Clarity

The poll’s results strongly contradict what the mainstream media has reported about voters’ attitudes toward vouchers.

“I don’t think choice is dead,” said Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble (R-Provo), Senate majority leader and sponsor of the bill creating the universal voucher program. “Public education is incapable of substantive change without competition. While it will not be reintroduced [in Utah] this year, meaningful reform is inevitable.”

Utah voters failed to uphold the voucher program for several reasons, advocates say. A major one is that when an initiative is put to a referendum vote, all an opposition group has to do is raise reasonable doubt about its potential in voters’ minds, because voters are generally against any kind of dramatic policy shift, said David Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow for education at the U.S. Freedom Foundation.

“Every time a voucher initiative has appeared on a ballot–eight times now?–the voucher advocates have lost,” Kirkpatrick pointed out. “Yet the movement goes on. The defeats should make it clear that an initiative proposal should be carefully worded and tested for public reaction, since once on the ballot it is a yes or no issue and anything that raises a doubt in voters’ minds results in a no vote.”

Pitched Battle

Robert Enlow, executive director of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, agrees.

“Some people think we lost the referendum because the program was universal rather than limited, but that’s wrong. The last time school choice was on a referendum, in Michigan, it was a limited program, and we still lost. Previous referenda on limited programs didn’t do any better,” Enlow pointed out.

“The lesson to draw is that school choice–any kind of school choice–is at a big disadvantage during a referendum fight,” Enlow explained. “That’s the obvious common denominator in our experience over the past decade.

“It’s always an uphill battle to fight against the teachers’ unions, but when the battlefield is a referendum their strengths–money coerced without consent from millions of teachers, the mystique of public schools, the dishonest scare rhetoric, and the thousands of pocketbook voters who oppose school choice because it threatens the union gravy train–become even more formidable,” Enlow said.

The National Education Association (NEA) spent at least one dollar from every teacher nationwide to defeat the Utah referendum, using a coordinated misinformation campaign to protect its monopoly.

Internal Debate

There remains debate within the reform community about the best way to provide vouchers. Some favor an incremental approach–offering them on a limited basis to students in chronically failing schools, for instance, or to students with disabilities–while others want to offer them on a universal scale like Utah’s proposed law, making them available to all students regardless of performance, ability, or family income.

“Some choice is better than none, so a limited school choice program is better than no school choice program. But emphasizing limited school choice over universal school choice at this point would be a huge step backward,” Enlow said.

“Compare the early school choice programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland with the programs we’ve seen enacted in the last five years,” Enlow continued. “The recent programs are much more universal–and we’re getting more of them enacted. That’s because we … have pushed so hard for universal school choice. Since we’re having such success by making programs more universal, why stop now?”

A reformer who strongly favors the universal approach is Dr. John Merrifield, a professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio and editor of the Journal of School Choice, a scholarly publication launched in 2007.

“Small, restriction-laden, targeted programs aren’t worth the political capital to fight for. The resistance to them isn’t any less. Extensive restrictions don’t take the political sting out of defeat, and victory would be hollow–even Pyrrhic,” Merrifield said.

Targeted Strategy

Some school choice advocates–most notably at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC–favor tax credits over vouchers. Others say the best strategy simply depends on the setting. In California, for instance, Lance Izumi, director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, said the group is “encouraging school choice options ranging from enhanced public school choice to increased charter school authorizers to targeted vouchers to universal vouchers.”

Enlow agrees with that approach.

“Both vouchers and tax credits have advantages and disadvantages. For every argument in favor of one, there’s an equal and opposite argument in favor of the other,” Enlow said. “We should stay focused on the goal of providing more choice to more students at more schools. Some voucher programs do a good job at this, while others are hindered by restrictions. Likewise, some tax credit programs do a good job, while others are hindered by restrictions.

“We should evaluate each program on its own merits rather than assuming that all vouchers or all tax credits work a certain way. We should also maintain the flexibility to go with whatever type of program has the most chance of success in each state,” Enlow concluded.

Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

“Full set of trackers and topical questions on education,” The Economist/YouGov, November 5-6, 2007: http://www.economist.com/media/pdf/econ05nov2007_tabs.pdf