Earlier this year, Utah governor Jon Hunstman Jr. made history by signing the Parent Choice in Education Act, the largest school-voucher bill to date in the United States. This massive school-choice program provides scholarships ranging from $500 to $3000 to help parents send their children to the private school of their choice. The program is open to all current public school children as well as some children already in private school. But the honeymoon in Utah was short lived. Before even one child could participate in the program, the scholarships were put on hold, pending a voter referendum this November on whether to retain the law.
Leading the charge against the voucher program is the Utah Education Association (UEA), the powerful state-wide teacher’s union. The battle this fall will be the most significant battle over school choice in years and the UEA is taking no chances — they are calling in backup.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that UEA president Kim Campbell traveled to Philadelphia to ask the board of directors of the National Education Association (NEA) for significant financial help to oppose the voucher program. Her campaign, she said, would “be ugly, mean and expensive.” The Education Intelligence Agency, a union watchdog, claims that Campbell’s $3 million request for NEA assistance was approved. This will, in short, be a full-scale assault on parental choice in education, led by teachers’ unions. But is opposing the voucher program really in the best interest of Utah teachers?
Discussions about school choice program typically focus on students. It is understandable that people are primarily concerned with students, but teachers — certainly an important player in any educational system — are also affected by school choice. And recent research suggests that increased school choice through programs such as Utah’s stalled voucher program benefit teachers just as they benefit students.
In “Empowering Teachers with Choice: How a Diversified Education System Benefits Teachers, Students, and America,” a recent report by the Independent Women’s Forum, education analyst Vicki Murray sheds light on the benefits teachers receive through school choice. At the heart of the issue is a more diverse workplace. Education is the second-largest industry in America, yet teachers do not see the same range of employment options that other fields, such as the medical or legal profession, enjoy. Instead, teachers are met with the same limitation that most students face — that of an assigned, government-run public school.
Programs like Utah’s Parent Choice in Education Act strive to create more options for students, parents, and teachers. Instead of sending their children to a government-assigned public school, parents can choose to send their children to the private school of their choice. By removing the government’s monopoly on students, the program will force all schools to compete for students, improving both public and private education in the process.
The program would also move toward a more diversified education marketplace for teachers. Just as schools would have to compete for students, they would also have to compete for quality teachers by offering competitive salaries, flexible schedules, and other perks. This kind of diversified market already exists in Japan, and the results have been tremendous. Teachers report higher levels of satisfaction, and Japanese students consistently outperform students from other countries on international exams. The system also boasts strong parental support and involvement, benefiting both students and teachers.
There is no reason that the United States can’t have an educational system that creates a positive working environment for teachers, while providing students with quality education. Polls indicate that private-school teachers are twice as satisfied as their public-school counterparts with their working conditions. Public-school teachers are twice as likely as private-school teachers to feel that doing their best is a waste of time. Teachers, overwhelmingly educated individuals committed to making a positive impact on children’s lives, deserve better than a system that makes them feel ineffectual.
The UEA and NEA should stop their knee-jerk opposition to school choice and consider what is best for the teachers they are supposed to represent. School choice has the potential to give both parents and teachers better options, which is something that everyone should support.
–Allison Kasic is director of campus programs at the Independent Women’s Forum.