School Choice & Charters

A Choice Showdown

By Michele McNeil — October 23, 2007 10 min read
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Claudia Cornejo de Burnett’s hopes for sending her daughter to a private school in Utah rest with the outcome of a Nov. 6 referendum.

A Mexican immigrant who came to the United States 12 years ago, she can’t afford several thousand dollars a year for tuition, but she wants her 9-year-old daughter to go to a Catholic school—just as Ms. Cornejo de Burnett did while growing up in Mexico. If Utah voters affirm a new voucher program enacted by the state legislature, Ms. Cornejo de Burnett and all other parents of public school students will be eligible to receive up to $3,000 per child to send their children to secular or religious private schools.

But parents such as Ms. Cornejo de Burnett are countered by others who feel differently about vouchers, and whose opposition has set off a multi-million-dollar battle that has drawn partisans to Utah from across the country.

Michael Boud, a volunteer working in support of the Utah school voucher program, collects signs at the headquarters of the pro-voucher group Parents for Choice in Education, in Salt Lake City. Supporters urge a vote for the program on Citizen’s State Referendum Number 1, which is on the ballot Nov. 6. The referendum has drawn attention and resources from voucher supporters and opponents nationwide.

Opponents include parents such as Trisha Beck, whose son has Down syndrome. She was among those who earlier this month filled a Learning Disabilities Association of Utah board meeting to argue that their children would be rejected by private schools and left behind in a public school system shortchanged by state spending on vouchers.

In a state heavily influenced by the Mormon faith, which emphasizes both the importance of public schools and the responsibility of citizens to make their own well-informed choices, the legislature here was the first to adopt a law promising any student now in public school a state-funded voucher for private school tuition. (“Utah’s Broad Voucher Plan Would Break New Ground,” Feb. 9, 2007.)

The groundbreaking law has set off a pitched debate over educational opportunities—who gets them, and who doesn’t, and what role, if any, the state has in expanding such choices. The rhetoric and television advertising campaigns are bitter, sometimes nasty. Voucher supporters are trying to rile up conservatives by emphasizing in television ads the participation of the anti-voucher National Education Association and linking the union with Democrats such as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, in addition to the controversial liberal group

Opponents of publicly funded vouchers, meanwhile, are seeking to raise voters’ anxieties by maintaining the voucher program will harm public schools. One voucher opponent—a former member of the state PTA—even went so far as to send an e-mail linking voucher supporters to Satan, according to local media reports.

“Education has become so politicized here,” lamented Kim Burningham, the chairman of the elected, 15-member Utah state board of education.

An Uphill Climb

The subject of debate for at least six years, the Utah voucher bill was approved by a single vote in the legislature before being signed into law by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, in February. Under the law, which has not yet been implemented, any public school student would be entitled to a voucher ranging from $500 to $3,000, depending on family income.

Utah’s Voucher Law

• Narrowly approved by the state legislature, and signed into law by Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on Feb. 12, the measure established the nation’s first universal voucher program.

• Any public school student, regardless of income, would be eligible for a voucher, ranging from $500 to $3,000 depending on family income, to help pay for private school tuition.

• Opponents of the voucher initiative gathered enough petition signatures to put the law up for a “citizens’ veto” vote on the Nov. 6 ballot.

• In the meantime, no vouchers have been given out.

SOURCE: Education Week

The program’s costs, which would be taken out of the state’s general fund and not out of its education budget, could top $71 million a year, according to legislative fiscal estimates. The same estimates predict public schools statewide could save up to $28 million because of lower student enrollment.

Six states offer some sort of targeted voucher program, such as for students with disabilities (Utah has such a plan) or those who live in certain school districts. And, under legislation enacted by Congress, public school students who meet income limits in the District of Columbia are eligible for federally financed vouchers to transfer to private schools.

But Utah’s new program would be the most expansive in the country. Immediately after the law was passed, opponents began gathering signatures and were successful in putting the question to voters for a “citizens’ veto” referendum, the state’s first in 30 years. The measure—Citizen’s State Referendum Number 1—is a vote for or against the voucher program going into effect.

In the meantime, the state school board, led by Mr. Burningham, a former teacher, refused to begin carrying out the program with the public’s vote just months away, rejecting advice from the Utah attorney general.

The latest poll, in early October, sponsored by the Desert Morning News and KSL-TV of Salt Lake City, suggested that voucher supporters have an uphill climb: At least 60 percent of the 409 registered voters polled said they “definitely” or “probably” would vote against vouchers. (The poll had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.)

Television spots are blanketing the Utah airwaves in advance of next month’s referendum on whether the state’s newly enacted voucher program should go into effect. The fierce campaign pits voucher opponents, such as Utahns for Public Schools (left) against those urging a vote for the program, such as Parents for Choice in Education.

Education advocates on both sides of the voucher issue are watching Utah.

“I think it’s important in the following way: the depth by which the opposition [is] going to fight this. We are gaining momentum, and they are losing,” said Robert C. Enlow, the executive director of the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, a voucher-advocacy group. “If we lose, it’s really a loss for Utah kids. The national momentum [for private school choice] will continue.”

The opposition is spearheaded by the teachers’ unions, led by the 3.2 million-member NEA. By the most recent campaign-finance-reporting deadline in September, the NEA had donated $1.53 million to the cause, with additional, smaller donations coming from teachers’ unions in Colorado, Maine, Ohio, and Wyoming. NEA President Reg Weaver would not say how much his national union was prepared to spend to defeat vouchers in Utah.

“We believe vouchers do nothing to support all children,” he said in an interview last month.

The pro-voucher side had raised about $530,000, including more than $200,000 from Patrick Byrne, the chief executive officer of the Salt Lake City-based Internet shopping site, who has been a major champion of vouchers.

The history of state ballot measures on vouchers is on the side of opponents of such programs. Over the past 30 years, voters in at least four states have rejected vouchers on statewide ballot questions, most recently in 2000 in California and Michigan, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Why Utah?

The Utah battle suggests that the school choice movement must adapt to the distinctive features of individual states—that one message or campaign style won’t work.

The state, like many in the West, is growing in population, especially among Latinos. But only 4 percent of the state’s more-than 550,000 K-12 students go to private schools, compared with a national average of 10 percent. More than half the state’s 29 counties, most of them heavily rural, don’t have a single private school.

Utah is tight-fisted—or thrifty—when it comes to funding education: It ranked dead last in the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent ranking of per-pupil spending, at $5,257 for fiscal 2005.

Voters in the state typically are conservative and anti-union—Utah gave President Bush his biggest margin of victory in 2004—but what makes Utah unique is that more than half its population is Mormon. Yet while Mormons, in general, are socially and politically conservative, that profile has not translated into a predictable stance on the issue of private school choice.

Utah's K-12 Students


SOURCES: Utah State Office of Education; Education Week

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe strongly in public education, and operate private schools only in parts of the world where public schools are lacking. Mormons also prize “free agency”—the freedom to educate themselves about civic issues and make their own choices. The church isn’t taking an official stand on vouchers.

“Our faith teaches us to choose for ourselves,” said Robyn Bagley, a Mormon mother of four who supports vouchers and who serves on the board of Parents for Choice in Education, a Utah-based voucher-advocacy group.

At the same time, unlike states with a history of struggling urban districts—such as Wisconsin and Ohio, which have had voucher programs for Milwaukee and Cleveland, respectively, since the 1990s—Utah has generally lacked the big-city school woes that make parents desperate for alternatives. Overall, Utah public schools ranked in the middle of the pack on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress mathematics and reading tests.

In addition, Utah parents already have some public school choices: open enrollment among 40 large districts (if there’s room), charter schools (though the waiting lists for the state’s more than 60 charter schools include thousands of names), and a 3-year-old voucher program for special-needs students.

So why would Utahns want a universalvoucher program?

“Freedom for parents. That’s the issue that works in Utah,” said Mr. Enlow, of the Friedman Foundation.

Other voucher supporters paint a less-than-rosy picture of the state’s public schools. Mr. Byrne, the CEO, said at a debate in Provo earlier this month that 40 percent of minority students in Utah do not graduate from high school.

“The system is throwing them out,” he said.

And that makes the referendum a significant issue for Hispanics.

“We are segregated by ZIP code,” said Rocio Diaz, a regional state director for the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, a Washington-based advocacy group, who is in Utah to help mobilize Hispanic support. The growing Hispanic

“We need the opportunity of the vouchers to get out of failing schools,” Ms. Diaz said.

Cost and Workability

Opponents of vouchers say that the very things that distinguish Utah would make universal vouchers undesirable and unworkable here.

Utahns, particularly Mormons, tend to have big families, which makes private school tuition more unaffordable, even with state aid, the opponents say. Even if a family qualifies for the maximum $3,000-per-child voucher, the average private school tuition is about $4,000. The state’s 15 Roman Catholic schools, which often provide lower-cost alternatives, serve a total of 5,500 students.

“It’s not going to help as many families as they say,” said Lisa Johnson, a mother of three from Draper, Utah, who is traveling the state talking to voters on behalf of Utahns for Public Schools, an advocacy group formed to fight the new law and get the issue on the ballot.

“We feel a better investment is to put [the money] in our public schools.”

Pro-voucher volunteers collect signs and boxes of cookies for distribution at the Parents for Choice in Education headquarters. Though Utah’s voucher proponents have fielded teams of supporters throughout the state, those opposed to the program enacted earlier this year have received more financial backing in their bid to overturn it in next month’s referendum.

Though voucher opponents have detailed arguments on why they believe vouchers are a bad idea, their chief contention is that it would hurt public schools by costing them precious dollars. The state, which has an $11 billion budget this fiscal year, will spend $2.5 billion on K-12 education.

“This is a Cadillac voucher program in a state that operates on a Volkswagen budget,” said state Rep. Sheryl Allen, a Democrat from Bountiful, a city of 41,000 just north of Salt Lake City.

Under the legislation, public schools for five years wouldn’t lose money if their students left for private schools. Students now in private schools would be ineligible for the money unless they met income guidelines. But kindergartners newly enrolled in private school would be added year by year until the program reached full implementation after 13 years, when every private school student in the state would be entitled to a voucher.

Opponents say that money spent on vouchers would draw resources from the public schools, where most children are educated.

The foes say private schools lack the strict accountability standards that exist in public schools, such as required state standardized tests. They also reject arguments that competition and parental choice will keep public and private schools performing well.

And because private schools don’t have to accept students, “it’s really private schools that have the choice,” said Ms. Johnson of Utahns for Public Schools, who spoke to the Learning Disabilities Association of Utah earlier this month.

The learning-disabilities group decided to take a stand against vouchers, said Ms. Beck, the mother whose son, now a public high school graduate, has Down syndrome. The group doesn’t support or oppose the special-needs voucher program because it helps some families whose traditional public schools cannot properly handle some severe disabilities.

Even those who strongly support vouchers say private school choice is not a cure-all for the state’s—or the country’s—education ills. Utah’s Roman Catholic schools could absorb about 500 more students, including about 200 more at the Juan Diego High School in Draper, where about 42 percent of the 775 students are poor enough to need tuition assistance, said Molly Gorman Dumas, the school’s director of institutional advancement and public information.

“We’re not the answer to everything,” she said.

But school choice is at least a partial answer for Ms. Cornejo de Burnett. “I believe in private schools,” she said. “And the vouchers would make it a lot easier for me and my daughter.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as A Choice Showdown


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