October 18 2007
Selling School Choice
On November 6, voters in Utah will decide whether to repeal the state's recently-enacted universal school voucher program. The program, which Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. signed into law in February, offers private school scholarships to every child in Utah's public schools, and to all low-income children currently in private schools. Vouchers are worth up to $3,000 for the neediest families, and all children are eligible to receive at least $500 for tuition.
If allowed to move forward, by 2020, the Utah voucher program would enable every child in the state to attend a school of their parents' choice. It would be by far the most sweeping school choice initiative enacted in the United States to date.
The benefits of sustaining this kind of program are clear: An education marketplace encourages innovation, greater efficiency, and more diversity. Instead of being stuck with one-size-fits-all, local-government-run public schools, parents are able to choose the schools that best meet their children's unique needs and talents. Schools respond by offering a variety of curricula and specialties. Parents have the ability to hold schools accountable. If they have doubts about whether their child is thriving, they can take their business elsewhere. Schools, in turn, hold teachers accountable: they expect professionalism, and accordingly, reward teachers that provide the best service.
This, of course, means trouble for the teachers unions, which have relied on the government's near monopoly on K-12 education to thwart efforts to hold teachers accountable for their performances. They are fighting the program in Utah as if their very existence were at stake. In the spring, the Utah Education Association led a statewide petition campaign to gather support for striking the voucher program. They succeeded in forcing a ballot referendum to decide the program's fate this November. Recognizing that a successful program in Utah could encourage other states to adopt similar programs, the National Education Association has pledged $3 million to help the Utah chapter anti-voucher campaign.
Vouchers have a poor track record at the ballot box. In 2000, initiatives to create school voucher programs in California and Michigan were soundly defeated. But supporters of school choice have reason to hope that Utah should be different. Voters aren't being asked to create a program, but rather to approve a program that has already made it through the legislative process and become law. There is an active pro-voucher coalition. The Salt Lake City-based Parents for Choice in Education is leading a statewide campaign in support of the program.
Governor Romney is uniquely positioned to lend a helping hand. The former Massachusetts governor's popularity in Utah is well known. In 2002, he earned national acclaim by rescuing Salt Lake City's Olympics. And as a Mormon making a credible bid for White House, Romney draws wide support in a state where more than 60-percent of citizens also belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Romney has stated that he supports school choice and vouchers while on the campaign trail. But skeptical conservatives might note that as Governor, vouchers were not a priority. Other GOP hopefuls have a stronger record on the issue. Rudy Giuliani pushed vouchers while he was Mayor of New York City, and both John McCain and Fred Thompson cast votes in the Senate to provide school vouchers for children in Washington, D.C.
The Utah ballot initiative gives Romney the opportunity to prove his bona fides as a strong school voucher supporter at a critical time. By talking about the importance of parental choice and the power of market competition, he could help to raise awareness about the importance of this program among Utah voters. By urging his supporters to give this program a chance, he could ensure that more parents control where their kids go to school, and help Utah become a national model for universal school choice.
In 2002, Mitt Romney saved Utah's Olympics and earned national acclaim as an effective manager and problem solver. In 2007, Romney has an opportunity to help rescue the nation's most expansive school voucher program and deliver a historic victory for conservatives. It's good policy, and can't hurt on the primary campaign trail either.
-Carrie Lukas is vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women's Forum and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.