The late Milton Friedman, who was the nation’s foremost advocate for school choice, would be more than pleased with the news coming out of Utah. By a vote of 38-37, the Utah House last Thursday approved the first-ever statewide universal school choice plan.
Despite the close vote, the program now faces relatively smooth sailing. The bill now goes to the state Senate, which twice before has voted for a similar program. Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, won election in 2004 in part by campaigning for school choice, and he has said he will likely sign the final bill.
Until now, school choice has been an idea that works but has only been spottily implemented, in part due to the fierce opposition of teacher unions and the rest of the educational-industrial complex. Maine and Vermont have allowed students in rural districts without their own high school to attend private schools for over a century. Struggling inner-city school districts in Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington allow low-income parents to obtain vouchers. My colleague Jason Riley has noted the extensive academic research finding that where choice is allowed, parents are much more satisfied with their children’s education, and local public schools have improved their performance.
Utah’s plan is modest, and at the same time revolutionary. It would reimburse parents sending their children to private schools between $500 and $3,000 a year based on their family income. Parents whose kids currently attend private school would not be eligible unless their income was low enough. But all new kindergartners would qualify, so that by 2020 all private school students would be eligible for vouchers.
State Rep. Steve Urquhart, the bill’s chief sponsor, says the breakthrough in winning House approval was the realization that it wouldn’t harm public education. The bill stipulated that for five years after a voucher student left the public system, the district would get to keep much of the money the state had paid for his education. Given that the average district gets $3,500 from the state and the average voucher is expected to be $2,000, a typical school district would gain some $1,500 every time a student left its system.
Mr. Urquhart was so confident of his math that he started an interactive Web site modeled after the interactive encyclopedia Wikipedia. He posted his bill on it and invited comments. Thousands of people logged on to www.politicopia.com and participated. “If anyone can show evidence (not just alarmist rhetoric) that public education does not come out financially ahead with this bill, post your arguments and data in the comment section,” Mr. Urquhart challenged his readers. No one was able to effectively rebut him.
By the time the bill came up for a floor vote, the debate was more philosophical and substantive than demagogic. “The debate was of the highest caliber that I’ve seen in my 13 years here,” said Speaker Greg Curtis. “I find it fascinating that not a single person spread the myth that [choice] would be harmful to public education.”
There are other reasons that school choice supporters were able to surmount the political odds and win in Utah. It’s worth pondering them as the battle to offer parents alternatives to the one-size-fits-all public-school model moves to other states.