This November 6th, all eyes will be trained on the Beehive state. Utah voters will head to the polls to express their views on Referendum 1, a statewide, universal education voucher program. If it succeeds, the program would be the first of its kind in the nation.
Unfortunately, prospects for passage aren’t good: according to a recent poll, 60 percent of Utahns plan to vote against the measure. Opposition to Referendum 1 has been fierce: the National Education Association (NEA) has pumped at least $1.5 million into its Utah affiliate to defeat the initiative. Teachers’ unions in Colorado, Ohio, Maine, and Wyoming have contributed thousands of dollars to the anti-voucher effort.
School choice opponents have interjected a fair bit of vitriol into the campaign: a former state PTA board member suggested the “parents for choice” were “from Satan.” This is eerily reminiscent of the nastiness expressed by opposition forces during California’s Proposition 174 voucher initiative campaign in 1993; then, voters were told vouchers would lead to “David Koresh High School” or “witches’ covens”. This is uncivil discourse at its worst.
Even so, inflammatory rhetoric has failed to rally traditional sources of support. The Utah Republican Party and Governor Jon Huntsman (a formerly vocal proponent of choice) have remained uncharacteristically quiet. Parents for Choice in Education, the group spearheading the measure, has instead relied on guidance from organizations such as the Friedman Foundation; Utah entrepreneur Patrick Byrne of Overstock.com fame has contributed lots of cash. Still, opponents have outspent the “yes” campaign by a ratio of more than three to one.
Governor Huntsman’s silence is particularly surprising, given the fact that Referendum 1 is a vote on the very law he signed this past February. The anti-school choice group, Utahns for Public Schools, quickly challenged vouchers in court, and in June, the Utah Supreme Court decided to put the issue to voters.
What’s at stake for Utah families? Referendum 1 would provide students with vouchers valued at $500 to $3,000 for private school tuition, depending on family income. A study from the Friedman Foundation indicates the program has the potential to save $700,000 in the first year alone; school districts could eventually save $26 million per year.
Despite an encouraging fiscal forecast and a body of research on the benefits of choice for students and traditional public schools (it’s the “rising tide that lifts all boats,” finds Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby), vouchers continue to encounter resistance at the ballot box. As a result, some strategists have turned to education tax credits as a means to augment educational choice for families. Tax credits seem to be more politically and legally viable than vouchers; credits targeting low-income families are especially popular. In fact, according to a new survey from Harvard University and Education Next, 53 percent of Americans believe low-income families should be able to use tax credits to send their children to private school.
The state of Arizona has led the way with tax credits, with good success. A number of states have since jumped on the bandwagon. Currently, some programs enable individuals or corporations to make tax-deductible contributions to “scholarship granting organizations”; SGOs then offer tuition assistance to eligible children. Other states allow parents to claim tax credits for approved educational expenses.
In North Carolina, Parents for Educational Freedom is laying the groundwork at the grassroots level for choice measures like tuition tax credits. The Alliance is joining the effort to educate the public: look for our policy report and parents’ guide detailing the manifold benefits of tax credits for North Carolina early next year.
Will vouchers prevail in Utah on November 6th? It’s possible, if unlikely. But widespread educational choice will eventually come, in one form or another. School choice is, in the words of former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, the “sine qua non of real education reform.” It’s the linchpin of any successful K-12 reform movement. Sooner or later, a majority of voters will agree.