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Utah heats up long-simmering school-voucher debate

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 22, 2007

Vouchers. It's a word that prompts people to square off for a boxing match. Only about 35,000 students nationwide use school vouchers – public funds for private education. But from statehouses to Capitol Hill, there are frequent rounds of sparring over expanding this form of school choice.

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One of the latest battlegrounds is Utah, where the governor recently signed into law the first voucher program in the United States to be hailed as "universal." It offers up to $3,000 a year to students who want to attend private schools. The money would be awarded on a sliding scale, the bulk of it going to low-income families, but there would be no upper-income limit for $500 vouchers.

"It's a huge breakthrough," says Clint Bolick, president of the Alliance for School Choice, a national group in Arizona that supports vouchers. "There is tremendous momentum behind school choice."

But some observers disagree that there's a surge of support building on this issue. For one thing, the law has hurdles to clear: Opponents have launched a petition drive to postpone it and let voters decide the issue in 2008; legal challenges are also likely.

"It seems like for every leap forward, there are some steps backwards," says Chad d'Entremont, assistant director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, a nonpartisan group at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "There was a sense a few years ago that after the high-profile failure of some voucher laws trying to make their way through state legislatures, the consensus among school-choice advocates was to move on to other initiatives.... [But] there hasn't really been a backing off of voucher reforms – they continue to be proposed and debated."

The idea of vouchers dates back to the 1950s, when economist Milton Friedman suggested it would promote competition and improve schools. Proponents also argue that families should be able to apply some tax dollars to whatever school they choose. Opponents insist that public money should be used only for public schools, rather than to subsidize private and religious institutions.

The Reagan administration pushed for vouchers, as did the current Bush administration in the initial education-reform proposals leading up to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which is now five years old and up for reauthorization. But so far, voucher programs have persisted only in about half a dozen states and districts; most are offered to students in low-income families, low-performing schools, or special-education programs.

Milwaukee led the way in 1990 and now has nearly 15,000 students using vouchers. A program started in Cleveland in 1995 was challenged all the way up to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in 2002 that it did not violate the establishment of religion clause in the Constitution.

But state courts have struck down voucher systems in Colorado and Florida. Those cases related, respectively, to local control and the state constitutional provision for a uniform system of public education. Many states also have so-called Blaine amendments, which prohibit public funding of private institutions. "We're still waiting to see what will happen if a state court takes on the Blaine amendments head on," Mr. d'Entremont says.

The calls for vouchers can make for surprising allies. Some grass-roots activists, many of them racial minorities, place an emphasis on the need for a sort of escape route from schools with a long history of low performance. Often they receive funding from conservative voucher supporters whose agenda otherwise wouldn't match their own. Some conservatives, on the other hand, oppose vouchers at the local level if they're satisfied in a suburban school system and want to maintain the status quo, d'Entremont says.