Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Utah Adopts Universal School Choice

Milton Friedman’s school choice vision is one step closer to being realized.

With a vote of 38 to 37, the Utah House passed legislation for the nation’s first universal school voucher program. House Bill 148, would allow every family in the state to have a choice in their child’s education.
“ Utah is getting to the core of what education is all about — learning should be tailored to each student,” said Elisa Peterson, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Parents for Choice in Education, which has led the local school choice effort. “ Utah parents want the freedom to choose education based on their child’s unique needs.”
HB 148, establishes the “Parent Choice in Education Act,” that would provide every Utah parent with school-aged children, a voucher worth $500 to $3,000 that could be used at any eligible private school. Children currently enrolled in private school who meet the eligibility for free and reduced price lunch would also qualify for the voucher. The voucher amount will based on a families’ annual income.

HB 148 will now be sent on to the Utah Senate. Successful passage there would send the bill to Gov. John Huntsman, Jr., who signed the state’s special needs voucher bill in 2005.

Milton Friedman, who passed away last November at the age of 94, is widely recognized as the father of the school voucher movement. This legislation is a victory for his proponents. The Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, dubbed "the nation's leading voucher advocates" by the Wall Street Journal, is a non-profit organization established in 1996. The origins of the foundation lie in the Friedmans' long-standing concern about the serious deficiencies in America's public schools. Their belief is that the way to improve the quality of education in this country is to enable all parents with the freedom to really choose the schools that their children attend. The Friedman Foundation works towards true education reform through school choice.

Personally - I have to say that I believe this isn't entirely as good as it sounds. We do have choices in education, although they are hampered by financial aspects. Inherent in choice are the pros and cons, and things we have to give up to get something else. With education, not everyone has the money to escape public schools and can pay to attend private schools. On top of that, we all pay taxes for public education, even if we do not use it, and when we make other education choices which cost us more money on top of our taxes, we end up paying twice for education. It doesn't seem quite fair, but it has become part of the choice we make. Homeschoolers pay for public education resources they do not use just as those families who attend private school.

I think education funding needs to be reformed. I do agree that something must be done to create some competition in education. Public education must be made to need a reason to improve. A financial incentive is as good a reason as any I suppose. However, I think vouchers like this will unfortunately now open the door for government to control private education and to dictate to them what and how to teach. In fact, this bill sets out a whole laundry list of things that a private school must comply with in order for the "scholarship" to be used there. Private schools will now lose their sovereignty (or whatever autonomy they had) because state money will be the road to regulation. I truly believe that parents should have choice, but I don't believe public funding should be involved. I'd much rather see tax credits, where you don't give money to the state to begin with. That way if you have a $5,000 tax credit per child, that you are responsible to educate, you will get to keep more of your money and perhaps get a nice refund to use towards the school, or education method, of your choice. Perhaps there should be a method of paying taxes based on how many kids you have enrolled in public school. Set a base for everyone, and then add onto it based on the number of kids in your family that you have attending public school. That way everyone supports public education, but those who use it pay more into it.

I don't have all the answers, but my feeling is the less government money going to private schools the better off they will be. It is for the exact same reason that I abhor any federal, or even state, money being given to homeschoolers. Homeschoolers should NOT accept public funding in the form of vouchers, services, grants or scholarship money. When we accept public funds in those ways we are subject to public scrutiny and public accountability.