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School Reform: Lessons from Utah
By David W. Kirkpatrick (November 29, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

The commentary two weeks ago considered the outcome of the November 6th election in Utah which saw the success of an initiative repealing school voucher legislation signed into law last February. The general emphasis was on issues directly related to the voucher program and the repeal initiative, such as the importance of the wording of initiatives and the inevitable opposition of the teachers unions to any voucher program, which is but the extreme example of their opposition to any proposal that would bring about any change in the present system - such as charter schools, tuition tax credits, spending caps, etc., etc.

Lack of space limited discussion of related items. One that was directly related was the likely limited impact of the voucher program had it survived, a case of much ado about nothing.

This was significant because the program would have entitled all of Utah's hundreds of thousands of students to receive a voucher, the nation's first such program. The vouchers would have been limited to a maximum of a few thousand dollars, not enough to create new schools. Aside from this minimal amount of the vouchers, Utah has about 100 nonpublic schools, enrolling some 15,000 students. These schools reportedly have room for about an additional 6,000 students. Thus the "universal" vouchers would have been useful to very few students. The limited dollar value of the vouchers could also have meant they would provide a subsidy for families with an adequate income but be of little or no assistance to low-income families, a factor that played into the hands of the opposition.

It is rarely if ever noticed, too, how little impact a true voucher program would have on most members of the general public. It has been estimated that as many as 75% of all households have no children in public school. About 50 million students are in public schools with five million or so students in nonpublic ones. Another estimated one to two million students are being homeschooled. But the great bulk of households either have children beyond school age, too young for school, or don't have any children at all.

Here is a generally overlooked factor not only when considering vouchers but when discussing other school reforms. Public opinion surveys often show support for a proposal that doesn't result in appropriate action. In at least one instance, a voucher initiative in California in the early 1990s, exit polling showed majority support for vouchers from an electorate which had just rejected one such proposal by a 2-1 margin. Even Pete Wilson, the California governor at the time, said he favored vouchers but opposed the specific plan on the ballot because of its possible cost.

In brief, the electorate may show support for school reform but they don't really have their heart in it because its direct impact on them is limited or nonexistent.

On the other hand. teachers and their unions may feel their jobs are at stake. This is particularly true for union staff. It has been estimated that the National Education Association (NEA) and its affiliates had more than 2,000 professional staff members each of whom earns over $100,000 a year. Staff of the NEA and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the two major teacher unions, exceed those of the two major political parties combined, and they can be shifted around the nation - such as to Utah - as the needs may require.

Of all occupation groups teachers are the only ones distributed throughout society, from remote Alaska to the heart of Manhattan in New York City. Altogether there are more than three million of them, most of whom are organized members of the NEA and AFT.

Three million members with total budgets exceeding $1,500,000,000 provides real power. While a strongly organized minority doesn't always defeat a totally unorganized majority the odds are in its favor. Fortunately, being the most powerful is not being all powerful. Teacher unions do not win all the time. Even if they vote as a block, highly unlikely, their three million members are less than 100 million voters.

A major factor in the Utah vote was low turnout. As usual the largest block of votes was those not cast.

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"The thing we have to fear in this country, to my way of thinking, is the influence of organized minorities, because somehow or other the great majority does not seem to organize. They seem to feel that they are going to be effective because of their own strength, but they give no expression of it." Alfred E. Smith, quoted, p. 138, Erik Bruun & Robin Getzen, Eds. Home of the Brave, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2001

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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

E-mail (tchrwrtr@aol.com)

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