School-choice opponents cling to the indefensible

WASHINGTON — In today’s political taxonomy, “progressives” are rebranded liberals dodging the damage they did to their old label. Perhaps their most injurious idea — injurious to themselves and public schools — was the forced busing of (mostly other peoples’) children to engineer “racial balance” in public schools. Soon, liberals will need a third label if people notice what “progressives” are up to in Utah.

There, teachers unions, whose idea of progress is preservation of the status quo, are waging an expensive and meretricious campaign to overturn the right of parents to choose among competing schools, public and private, for the best education for their children.

In balloting more important to the nation than most of next year’s elections will be, Utahans next week will decide by referendum whether to retain or jettison the nation’s broadest school choice program. Passed last February, the Parent Choice in Education Act would make a voucher available to any public school child who transfers to a private school, and to current private school children from low-income families. Opponents of school choice reflexively rushed to force a referendum on the new law, which is suspended pending the vote.

The vouchers would vary in value from $500 to $3,000, depending on household income. The teachers unions’ usual argument against school choice programs is that they drain money from public education. But the vouchers are funded by general revenues, not the two sources of public school funds, which are local property taxes and the Uniform School Fund. And every Utah voucher increases funds available for public education. Here is how:

Utah spends more than $7,500 per public school pupil ($3,000 more than the average private school tuition). The average voucher will be for less than $2,000. So every voucher that is used — by parents willing to receive $2,000 rather than $7,500 of government support for the education of their child — will save Utah taxpayers an average of $5,500. And because the vouchers are paid from general revenues, the departed pupil’s $7,500 stays in the public school system.

Furthermore, booming Utah, which has about 540,000 public school pupils and the nation’s largest class sizes, expects to have at least 150,000 more than that a decade from now. By empowering parents to choose private alternatives, the voucher program will save Utah taxpayers millions of dollars in school construction expenses.

Opponents of school choice argue that it will produce less racially and socially diverse schools. But because students are assigned to public schools based on where they live, and because residential patterns reflect income, most of Utah’s public schools are either mostly wealthy and white or mostly nonwealthy and nonwhite. Utah’s Office of Education reports that the state’s private schools — which are operating one-third below full enrollment — have a higher percentage of nonwhites than do public schools.

The voucher program will enable demand for private schools to match the supply. A privately funded scholarship program, Children First Utah, for low-income pupils can support only 15 percent of applicants. Although most of the total value of the new voucher program will go to low-income families, the program amounts to a reduced government subsidy for such families — at most $3,000 rather than more than $7,500 per pupil.

Public filings showed that by September the National Education Association, the megalobbyist for the public education near-monopoly, had already spent $1.5 million to support repeal of the voucher program. The Wall Street Journal reports that the NEA has approved expenditures of up to $3 million. Public filings in September showed that teachers unions in Maine, Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming had contributed to the fight against choice. Probably other states’ unions will be identified in the next reports.

Intellectually bankrupt but flush with cash, the teachers unions continue to push their threadbare arguments, undeterred by the fact that Utah’s vouchers will increase per-pupil spending and will lower class sizes in public schools. Why the perverse perseverance? There are two large, banal reasons — fear of competition and desire for the maximum number of dues-paying public school teachers.

Although Utah is among the reddest of states — the most emphatically Republican in six of the last eight presidential elections — it is among the most supportive states regarding public education: It has the fifth-highest proportion of K through 12 students in public schools. (Even its home-schooled children outnumber the children in private schools.) Nevertheless, on Tuesday Utah voters can strike a reverberating blow against the idea that education should remain the most important sector of American life shielded from the improving force of competition.

What will defenders of that idea — former liberals, now known as progressives — call themselves next? Surely not “pro-choice.”

George Will is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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