Vouchers See Mixed Success This Session
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer
(Updated 12:43 p.m. EST, Tuesday, April 10)
This year the school choice movement reached a milestone - Utah became the first state to sign a universal voucher law. Unlike other voucher programs, Utah's would allow every child - regardless of income or geography - to receive public money to attend private school.
But a drive is under way to dismantle that plan before it can get off the ground this fall. Utahns for Public Schools , a coalition including the state's teachers union and school boards association, is trying to take the voucher decision out of lawmakers' hands and give it to voters.
"This is something that the voter ought to have the right to give his opinion on," said Marilyn Kofford, the education commissioner of the state Parent Teacher Association, part of the coalition.
Midway through the legislative season, school choice proponents, who say vouchers can give disadvantaged public school students a chance to attend better schools, have had mixed results.
In January, the Georgia Senate passed a bill to set up a voucher program for students with learning disabilities. In February, more than 5,000 attended a school choice rally at the Texas Capitol. In March, an Arizona judge dismissed a suit against a new law giving tax credits to corporations that underwrite scholarships for poor children.
But opponents, who say vouchers drain funds from public schools, can point to some dramatic victories of their own. In March, while voucher-supporter Gov. Matt Blunt (R) looked on, the Republican-held Missouri House voted 96-62 against a bill that would have helped 8,000 students from St. Louis and Kansas City attend private schools. Later that month, voucher amendments to a South Carolina bill failed by seven votes in the House, partly because Rep. James Smith (D) flew home from Army National Guard training in Kansas to argue and vote against them.
Also last month, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) announced he wants to end the Ed Choice voucher program for students at failing schools, which began only this school year.
"Now you're seeing a real response from the top saying 'no, this isn't a good use of taxpayer dollars and students are not achieving in these programs,' " said Nancy Van Meter of the American Federation of Teachers , which opposes vouchers.
But voucher advocates say public acceptance of school choice reform is growing.
"As more states and parents are experiencing choice and seeing the change that it has in the lives of students, I think as a culture we're opening up to it," said Matt Warner, the education task force director at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization of conservative state legislators that puts forth model legislation.
Last year was a banner one for the choice movement. Of 28 states that considered bills, eight enacted laws to create or expand voucher or tax credit programs. Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia have some type of choice program, ranging from personal tax credits to vouchers for kids in failing schools.
So far this year, several states are considering school choice legislation. Five have bills to give vouchers to foster kids, while at least 12 are considering giving vouchers to students with disabilities. A bill for those with autism recently passed a Senate panel in Texas.
Van Meter said the current trend for voucher supporters is to push narrowly targeted programs. "They are using those as their camel's nose under the tent," she said. "They see those as a more politically acceptable way to win vouchers when they can't win on a universal voucher program."
The exception is Utah, where, after seven years of failure, a universal voucher bill passed the House in February by 38-37. The Senate and governor later signed on as well.
Yet the situation in Utah still is volatile, because the anti-voucher coalition needed 92,000 signatures by April 9 to place a referendum on the ballot. According to the coalition, they collected more than 131,000 signatures. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) has said if the group succeeds, he will call for a special election in June. But even if voters subsequently reject vouchers, legal questions will linger; the Legislature passed two voucher measures, the initial bill and one that amended it. The referendum only deals with the former.
A key difference is that the second bill does not include money to help public schools whose students leave for private schools. Voucher opponents could claim in court that lawmakers never would have voted for the second bill had they known public schools were not going to receive help.
Utahns for Public Schools says the second bill cannot stand on its own. But Parents for Choice in Education , which supports vouchers, and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff (R) say it can, although Shurtleff added in an opinion that the second bill alone would be more susceptible to constitutional challenges. "No matter what happens, this will end up in court," he told The Deseret Morning News.
Despite that, supporters say the national movement can only benefit from how far vouchers have advanced in Utah.
According to Warner of ALEC: "For Utah to recognize the success that school choice has had and to not discriminate in its eligibility has really moved school choice a great leap forward."