Politics & Policy

An Inconvenient Voucher Truth

The civil-rights battle in Utah.

While national airwaves have been filled with upcoming presidential-primary debates, the Utah airwaves have been filled with sounds of a different political fray. Today Utah voters will step into the voting booth and into the national spotlight to give the up or down on the nation’s most extensive voucher program to date.

Not surprisingly, voucher opponents have trotted out a tried and true election-shaping mechanism: the politics of confusion and fear. It’s almost as if their campaign strategy is being run by Karl Rove. Facts are few and far between but spooks and scary questions abound. These tactics do seem somewhat fitting given the Halloween time of year.

Lost in all the back and forth is the little dirty secret that anti-voucher advocates hope never comes to light or is never fully comprehended by Utah voters, namely, the very people who position themselves as the saviors or advocates of low-income minority children are the ones opposing legislation that has been proven to lift these same children out of the abyss of educational failure.

In Utah, more than 40 percent of Hispanics and African-American public students do not graduate with a diploma. This is a travesty. Adding insult to injury, the “minority advocates” in Utah seem to be doing everything in their power to keep minorities from having real educational choice and thereby from reaching their potential.

So here you have the ultimate irony. It is not the NAACP or teachers’ union coming to the rescue of minority families, but conservative Republicans, who have stepped forward with a solution to give a hand up. It is Republicans, not Democrats, who have gone to Milwaukee to study the city’s successful voucher program and see how it could be applied in a state where minorities are struggling in record numbers.

The magnitude of what vouchers could mean for minority students in Utah seems lost on voucher opponents. The anti-voucher camp is more intent on selling the idea that Utah’s private schools are too expensive for low-income families, on highlighting the perceived lack of accountability in the law, or speculating about the potential cost of the voucher program, than facing up to their system’s failure with respect to minority students.

With all the smoke and mirrors, one can only assume that this high-centering is part of the opponents’ attempt to manage the cognitive dissonance generated by a public-school system that is failing the children and families for whom they have claimed to advocate over the past 100 years.

Under Utah’s voucher law, a family of four making less than $38,000 can qualify for a $3,000 voucher, which makes more than 67 percent of voucher-eligible private schools affordable (i.e., the family pays approximately $130/month per child in out-of-pocket tuition costs). With 28 percent of public schools now in the failing category under NCLB, are public school leaders really the ones to be beating the accountability drum? And with respect to the “cost” of vouchers, public educators complaining about Utah adding $12.5 million (from the state’s general fund) to the state’s current $3.5 billion education-funding pot just seems to ring a little hollow.

Presidential candidate Giuliani stated it best in a recent debate when he declared education to be the civil rights issue of the new century. Perhaps another inconvenient truth arising out of this voucher debate is that the new progressive leaders of the 21st century are now conservatives.

Lyall Swim is the director of operations at Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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