Sixteen years ago, after the Utah Legislature passed a bill establishing a voucher program to let people choose to send their children to private schools by redirecting their tax dollars, Utah voters (led by a well-organized teachers’ union) successfully petitioned to put the bill up for a vote, and then voters defeated it.
It wasn’t close. They rejected it by a 62% to 38% margin.
But it’s hard to argue against such a resounding defeat. I remember lawmakers back then telling me the issue was dead. Forever.
Now we know how long forever is. The House Education Committee voted 12-4 on Thursday to send HB215, the latest voucher or, rather, “optional education opportunities” bill to the House floor.
And so I had to ask. Do Republican legislative leaders believe the 2007 result at the polls would turn out differently if held today?
In a word, yes.
Senate President Stuart Adams said the pandemic made all the difference. People were fed up with their children being forced to go to school online.
“I can’t tell you how many parents, not in my school district … but all over the state, wanted the ability to have their kids go to a school where they had control of it,” Adams said when I asked the question at a media event in his office on Tuesday.
“I don’t care whether it’s deep in the Salt Lake school district or out in Vernal, but there were parents that wanted control over their kids’ education.
“I do believe there’s been a change. I believe it passionately. I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it from parents with tears in their eyes. And I think they want the ability to take their dollars and be able to put them in a school where their kids can be educated, and they want that choice.”
But hearing support, and even seeing it reflected in opinion polls, might not mean much if a bill is passed and if the same powerful forces set a referendum in motion once more.
As I wrote back in 2007, in the political fog of a looming referendum, the voucher bill quickly went from ink on paper to smoke and distractions, “like a competition among carnival barkers along the midway of a state fair. One side accuses the other of being against public education. The other side counters with accusations that the teachers’ union is controlled by liberal out-of-state interests.”
And that was before we allegedly became a less civil society.
This year’s bill has a lot of the same opponents. But conservatives today are buoyed in their support by everything from pandemic online schooling to culture war issues such as critical race theory. The danger is that education performance might become a secondary consideration.
Meanwhile, this year’s Legislature is using hardball politics to get HB215 passed.
Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, a sponsor of the bill, explained the difference between it and the one 16 years ago. This program would be more limited, for one thing. Not everyone would get it. And it could be used to help parents home school, as well.
For another, and this is the hardball, the pay raises Gov. Spencer Cox included in his budget proposal, meant to go directly to teachers, are also included in the bill. Cullimore and Adams said this is because the governor last year opposed a similar bill because he wanted teachers to get more money first.
But it’s hard to ignore that tying teacher raises to the bill does what Republicans typically hate — combining two things that ought to be voted on separately. Vote no on school choice and you’re voting against teacher raises. If lawmakers pass the bill and the Utah Education Association starts an effort to recall it through referendum again, they will be fighting to overturn raises.
Clever politics, but it could backfire.
Much has happened since 2007. Many states now have some form of a voucher system and a track record for the program. And yet, people still disagree on the results.
A Brookings Institution study found that vouchers haven’t delivered, while a research brief from the Rand Corporation found that they helped African-American students perform modestly better, although it noted more information was needed.
Opponents note that Utah already offers choice through a growing number of public charter schools, as well as the Carson Smith Scholarship directed at special needs students.
But pointing out the benefits of one level of choice is not really an argument against adding more choice. Few people are talking about how last year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress report found test scores declined dramatically during the pandemic, even though Utah’s scores declined less than in most states, or how the United States continues to score lower in math and reading than many other nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA.
And yes, despite large increases in public school funding in recent years, education money remains precious in Utah. It isn’t entirely certain the bill wouldn’t harm public schools. Education matters are never easy.
So, would a 2007-style referendum on school choice pass today?
Hard to say. But if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be the first time Utah lawmakers miscalculated public sentiment.