Vouchers Subsidize Parents, Not Schools

Published May 31, 2016

I live in a white-bread, middle-income, predominantly Mormon suburb of Salt Lake City.

One of my neighbors is another Mormon Stepford-clone like me. We are the same socioeconomic creature. We go to church together, our families hang out together, we’re guided by the same values, and there is very little on which we disagree. Except when it comes to school vouchers–he hates them; I love them.

My neighbor has six children, and all of them have attended public schools. I have six children and all of them have been homeschooled.

All 12 of them are fairly indistinguishable, except that some of them walk with a public school limp and some with a homeschool limp (and, of course, mine play basketball better).

This introduction is important and relevant because the November referendum on school vouchers will be decided by our particular brand of citizen-species–white, fairly well-to-do Mormons who vote. Like it or not, we are the swing vote.

Better Neighbor?

Clearly, my neighbor has been extremely pleased with his local public school. He has the means to send his children to private schools, but he and his wife have consciously chosen to use public schools. He honestly believes he is the better citizen for having his children attend public school.

My neighbor hates school vouchers because he does not believe that taxpayers should subsidize families choosing to send their children to private schools. He often says, “Utah families already have school choice. They can send their kids to public, private, or homeschools. Why should I pay for the personal choices of families to send their children to private schools?”

To which I respond that my wife and I pay large amounts of state income taxes each year to subsidize the education of neighbor children even though we homeschool our own.

“Yes, but that’s your choice,” he replies. Well, no, that’s not my choice alone. By law my taxes go to support public education, not homeschools. When you think about it, neighbor, my wife and I are actually the better education citizens–we don’t burden taxpayers with our children’s education, and we willingly pay for the public education of children in other families.

“Fine. But I don’t think that we should subsidize private school education,” he retorts. But it’s OK to subsidize public school education? “That’s different!” How? “We have an obligation to give every child a good education. And, besides, paying for public education is not a subsidy.”

Better for Citizens

Well, my friend, it is a subsidy, no different than what a school voucher would provide. Your six children, combined, cost taxpayers $360,000 to attend public school an average of 12 years.

While you make very good money, your state tax liability is about $5,000 per year. Over 20 years, the lifespan of your family’s public school years, that’s about $100,000. So your neighbors have subsidized your six children’s public education to the tune of $260,000.

By contrast, my family has saved taxpayers $360,000 and has benefited the public school system by another $100,000 in taxes. We agree that we want every child to receive a good education. That’s why I support school vouchers: If we are going to subsidize every child’s education anyway, then why not let parents choose what is best for their own children?

What’s the difference as long as it makes Utah’s families happy, empowered, and involved in the education of their children, especially struggling and impoverished ones? That’s the attitude of a good citizen.

Paul T. Mero ([email protected]) is president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank in Salt Lake City. This op-ed originally ran in The Salt Lake Tribune on July 15.