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Utah’s Vote Raises Bar on Choice

By Erik W. Robelen — November 09, 2007 7 min read
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The resounding defeat in Utah last week of what would have been the nation’s first universal-voucher program highlights again the political vulnerability of such controversial school choice measures.

The rejection also offers a cautionary example for voucher supporters in at least those states like Utah where voters may overturn newly enacted legislation through a ballot referendum. The Utah plan was effectively vetoed by voters before it ever took effect.

Voucher foes go even further, saying the vote in Utah, a generally conservative, reliably Republican state, should reinforce the message that the public simply doesn’t like the idea of vouchers, and that lawmakers elsewhere should take heed.

“No matter what state, no matter what the plan looks like, voters, when they really focus on it, are against an unproven and unsound education policy,” said Marc F. Egan, the director of federal affairs for the National School Boards Association.

Mr. Egan and other observers suggest that, at least in states where overturning legislation through referendums is possible, such a strategy could well become more common. Unlike in Utah, most ballot measures on private school choice over the past decades have been aimed at creating such programs.

“Public school supporters will have to take a hard look at that [referendum strategy] and consider whether it’s worth the obvious cost, time, and energy,” Mr. Egan said. “Utah would indicate that it probably is.”

Even some voucher backers say the Utah measure was made more vulnerable because the program was so broad, rather than being targeted, for instance, to students from low-income families or with disabilities.

“I have come to believe that the Utah voucher program was a major strategic error for the school choice movement,” said Clint Bolick, a longtime lawyer on voucher issues who now works at the Goldwater Institute, a think tank in Phoenix. “Most of our successes over the last several years have been pursuant to what I would call the acorn strategy: small choice programs that grow and give rise to others.”

‘This Is 11 of 11’

Some 62 percent of Utahns who voted Nov. 6 said no on the state ballot measure, Referendum 1, killing what would have been the most expansive voucher program in the country before it ever got started. It lost by a majority in every county.

The law’s enactment had set off an intense political battle. Opponents, with strong backing from teachers’ unions nationally, gathered enough signatures to force a statewide vote. The ensuing campaign—with both sides spending a combined total of more than $8 million—was bitter.

Voucher Programs

On the Ballot

Voucher programs focusing on specific groups of students are in place in five states and the District of Columbia.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Opportunity Scholarship Program
Started: 2004
Amount: Up to $7,500
Eligibility: Students from low-income families

FLORIDA
McKay Scholarships Program for Students with Disabilities
Started: 1999
Amount: Average was $6,897 in 2005-06
Eligibility: Students with disabilities who have been enrolled in a public school for at least one year

Voluntary Prekindergarten Program
Started: 2005
Amount: $2,500 to $3,000
Eligibility: Florida residents

GEORGIA
Georgia Special Needs Scholarship
Started: 2007
Amount: Up to $9,000
Eligibility: Students with disabilities who have been enrolled in a public school for at least one year

OHIO
Autism Scholarship Program:
Started: 2004
Amount: Up to $20,000
Eligibility: Students ages 3 to 21 diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder and registered in the public school special education system

Cleveland Scholarship And Tutoring Program
Started: 1996
Amount: Up to $3,450
Eligibility: Priority given to low-income families

Educational Choice Scholarship Pilot Program
Started: 2006
Amount: Up to $4,250 for grades K-8; up to $5,000 for grades 9-12
Eligibility: Students attending schools rated in “academic emergency” under the state accountability system for three consecutive years

UTAH
Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship Program
Started: 2005
Amount: Values were $5,700 or $3,420 in 2005-06
Eligibility: Students with disabilities

WISCONSIN
Milwaukee Parental Choice Program
Started: 1990
Amount: Up to $6,501 in 2006-07
Eligibility: Students from low-income families in Milwaukee

On the Ballot
Ballot measures that would have created publicly financed voucher programs have been defeated in all these states:

CALIFORNIA, 2000
MICHIGAN, 2000
WASHINGTON, 1996
CALIFORNIA, 1993
COLORADO, 1992
MICHIGAN, 1978
MARYLAND, 1972

If history is any gauge, the outcome was predictable. Every voucher or tuition-tax-credit program to face a decision by voters on a state ballot in recent decades has been soundly rejected.

“By our count, this is 11 of 11, going back to the early ’70s,” said Mr. Egan of the Alexandria, Va.-based NSBA, referring to both kinds of programs.

In six of the seven states where voucher-only plans were placed on the ballot, those measures were not narrowly tailored to specific groups of students. The one exception was the 2000 vote in Michigan, where vouchers were targeted to districts in which fewer than two-thirds of high school students graduated within four years.

Battles over vouchers have gone to court, with mixed results.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state-enacted voucher program for Cleveland in 2002, saying that its inclusion of religious schools did not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on a government establishment of religion.

But in 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down that state’s voucher program for students in the state’s lowest-rated public schools. The ruling said the state law violated the state constitution’s provision that requires a “uniform” system of public schools for all students.

So far, states have enacted publicly funded voucher programs that are targeted in some way, such as being aimed only at students who are from low-income families, who have special needs, or who live in a particular place.

But the Utah program— approved by a single vote in the legislature in February and signed into law by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican—would have gone further. Any public school student would have been entitled to a voucher worth $500 to $3,000, depending on family income.

The program’s costs, which would have been taken out of the state’s general fund, were estimated to potentially top $71 million a year, according to legislative fiscal estimates. The same estimates predicted that public schools statewide would save up to $28 million because of lower student enrollment.

National Spotlight

The battle over whether to overturn the law was largely a duel between the 3.2 million-member National Education Association and the voucher champion Patrick Byrne, the millionaire founder and chief executive officer of an Internet shopping site, Overstock.com. The NEA donated about $3 million to the cause, while Mr. Byrne, who lives in Utah, and his family donated $2.3 million, according to state campaign-finance filings and media reports.

Voucher opponents—who argued that the measure ultimately would divert resources that would otherwise reach the state’s public schools—were jubilant after last week’s vote.

“The people spoke out by saying that it is not acceptable to have money diverted from the public schools,” Reg Weaver, the president of the NEA, said in an interview. “Once again, the voucher issue has raised its ugly head, and once again it has been snapped off by the people.”

Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said voters may have been influenced by issues such as concerns about government spending.

“The voters were in a surly mood,” he said. “When that’s the case, they’re inclined to say no. … The voters know that there are many needs and limited resources, and this just does not appear to be a priority.”

Unusual Venue

Utah was an unusual venue for a universal-voucher program. The state has only a small private school sector. Some 3 percent of the school-age population is enrolled in about 100 private schools, or about 15,000 students.

Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank, and a former official in the Bush administration, saw several flaws in the Utah voucher law.

“It was poorly designed,” he said. “The idea of having a universal voucher, and one that is funded at a fairly low level, made it so easy for the opponents to claim that it wasn’t going to help poor kids, and would subsidize middle-class parents.”

“This was sort of the worst-case scenario for a voucher program in terms of navigating politics,” added Mr. Petrilli, who said he believes vouchers should be targeted toward students from low-income families who are not being well served by public schools.

But Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that is a leading promoter of school choice, including vouchers, said the problem wasn’t the policy, it was the fact that vouchers were put on the ballot.

“Ballot initiatives on such emotional issues as education rarely succeed when they’re looking for dramatic change, because people are uncomfortable with making policy at the ballot box,” Ms. Allen said.

Currently, 23 states, including Utah, have a process in place through which residents may collect signatures to place a measure passed by the legislature on the ballot to be accepted or rejected by voters, according to Kristina Wilfore, the executive director of the Washington-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a self-described progressive think tank. Most of those states are in the West or Midwest.

In most cases, Ms. Wilfore said, residents have a fairly limited window of time in which they may do so.

She believes the Utah action will deter other states from passing voucher legislation. “It takes the wind out of the sails,” she said, “because no one wants to champion an issue that’s a loser.”

Still, voucher advocates say they have reasons for optimism. For instance, earlier this year, Georgia joined three other states with voucher programs for students with disabilities.

“This movement is strong,” said Robert C. Enlow, the executive director of the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, which promotes school choice. “We’re going to continue to see new programs enacted across the country.”

Mr. Bolick of the Goldwater Institute said he also doesn’t anticipate any slowing of momentum around vouchers, but hopes proponents take heed of the Utah results.

“I think any time you get your clock cleaned,” he said, “you need to re-evaluate your strategy.”

Staff Writer Michele McNeil and Research Librarian Rachael Holovach contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Utah’s Vote Raises Bar On Choice

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