Utah heats up long-simmering school-voucher debate

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.

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.

Charter schools are a more popular form of school choice, sometimes as a compromise to stave off a push for vouchers. These schools stay in the realm of public accountability, but they free principals and teachers from some of the traditional bureaucracy.

One key difference for people concerned about educational equity is that if charter schools are in high demand, they're supposed to select students by lottery, whereas under a voucher system, private schools can choose which students to serve, says Helen Ladd, professor of public policy studies at Duke University.

Professor Ladd co-wrote a book about education in New Zealand, where money follows a student to whatever school he or she attends. The hope was the system would revitalize the most challenged schools. But instead, Ladd says, those schools "were even worse off than they were before, because motivated parents took advantage of the opportunity to move their children ... and left behind in the traditional public schools even greater concentrations of disadvantaged students."

So far, there's no scholarly consensus that voucher programs in the US make a significant difference in student achievement. Two studies of the Milwaukee program, for instance, came up with different results, one showing improvement in reading and math scores for participants and the other showing no gains.

The Bush administration, as well as Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R) of California, recently proposed providing scholarships to students in schools that repeatedly fail to meet the goals outlined in NCLB – money that could be used in private schools.

With Democrats in control of Congress, that's not likely to gain traction. The chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller (D) of California, "does not believe that private school vouchers are an acceptable proposal," says spokesman Aaron Albright.

Nevertheless, "NCLB paves the way for school choice, because public school transfers have proven inadequate," says Mr. Bolick of the Alliance for School Choice.

Bolick also says small-scale programs, such as a two-year-old voucher system for students in Utah who have special- education needs, build a more welcoming atmosphere for broader voucher laws.

On the ground in Utah, those advocating for a referendum to repeal the recent Parent Choice in Education Act say there are plenty of good choices in the public school system. "You have all kinds of rights through Title I [funding for low-income students] to get extra help for your children," says Marilyn Kofford, Utah PTA education commissioner and a spokeswoman for Utahns for Public Schools, a group organizing the petition drive. Students in low-performing schools can get tutoring, for instance.

Utah also has open enrollment, allowing parents to send children to any public school in the state that has room.

"If the public wants vouchers, great, but we feel like this is such a key issue that the general public should have the opportunity of saying yes or no," Ms. Kofford says, noting that the bill passed the House by only one vote. Her group has a few more weeks to gather more than 92,000 signatures to challenge the law.

It's mainly teachers unions' that object, say the law's supporters. "We're not saying public schools are bad, we're saying let parents make that choice – not 'educrats,' not unions," says Nancy Pomeroy, communications director for Parents for Choice in Education in Salt Lake City. "What are they afraid of, that everyone is going to leave public schools in droves?"

Depending on how poll questions are worded, Americans have shown a range of response (anywhere from 36 percent to 60 percent) over the past couple of years in favor of allowing students to use public funds to attend public or private schools.

A poll earlier this month by the Deseret Morning News found that 39 percent (+/- 5 points) would vote in favor of the Utah voucher plan, 55 percent against.

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