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School Choice Initiatives - An Impossible Dream?
By David W. Kirkpatrick (November 15, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         For the first time since 2000 a school voucher program was on a state ballot November 6th, in Utah.  Unlike about ten other efforts since 1972, however, this one did not seek to authorize vouchers but was to repeal one the Utah legislature had created last February.   Like a similar effort in Washington State a few years back, where the goal was to repeal a newly-voted charter school program, the opponents were successful.
 
         After going 0 for 12, it may be some time before voucher advocates attempt a voucher effort on their own although, with dozens of states having the initiative and/or referendum option there is always the risk that, as in Utah and Washington, even a successful legislative effort may face a ballot challenge.
 
         Aside from controversial issues such as school vouchers, it is often overlooked how difficult passage of an initiative may be.  The most famous such ballot proposal was probably Proposition 13 in California thirty years ago.  This reduced and capped property taxes in California and was instrumental in starting the property tax rebellion in the nation which continues to this day.  What has been forgotten, if noticed at all at the time, is that Proposition 13 was the third effort by Howard Jarvis and others to do something about property taxes in California.
 
         That three-time effort to achieve a goal popular with the public shows there are lessons to be learned.  Twelve defeats in a row, with the expenditure of perhaps as much as $100 million dollars by proponents and opponents since 1972 - an estimated $8 million in Utah this year, and reportedly as much as $18 million by opponents alone in California in the early 1990s - with no victories for voucher advocates means lessons have not been learned.
 
         The first, which applies to all initiatives, is the necessity to get the wording right.  In the legislative process, if legitimate questions arise, amendments may be made.  With initiatives it's yes or no, which gives opponents an edge.  All they need do is raise doubts in the minds of voters and the initiative goes down.
 
         Proponents of an initiative need to spend sufficient time and effort to work with focus groups, conduct opinion polling and otherwise try to determine that the specifics of their proposal are clear and acceptable enough to withstand a challenge.  The more controversial a proposal, and the teacher unions will insure that vouchers are always controversial, the more essential that advance work is.
 
         The Utah voucher program did not meet this test.  Even strong supporters of school choice in general and vouchers in particular were less than enthusiastic about the approach there.
 
         Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute in Arizona who, among other things, was a lead attorney in the successful defense of Ohio's voucher program in Cleveland, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2002 says he believes "the Utah voucher program was a major strategic error."
 
         Michael J. Petrilli of the pro-voucher Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, says the program was "poorly designed" and "sort of the worst-case scenario for a voucher program in terms of navigating politics."
 
         And voucher proposals in whatever form face the scorched-earth opposition of the teachers unions, plus that of  the public school establishment in general.  In Utah, the National Education Association alone is reported to have committed $3 million to the repeal effort.  And it was joined by smaller amounts from several other branches of the union monolith, such as individual state unions.
 
         That's the sad part of this ongoing battle.  The unions are determined to prevent low-income families from exercising their constitutional right (the U.S. Supreme Court Peirce decision, June 1925).  As former NEA-President Keith Geiger expressed it these kids can't be allowed to "escape."
 
         And that's it in a capsule.  Families who can afford choice, whether by utilizing a nonpublic school or, more commonly, are able to afford to live in an acceptable school district are free to do so.  Those who can't must accept whatever it is that the unions will tolerate for them.
 
         In the short run the unions often win.  These may eventually be Pyrrhic victories.
 
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         "It is ironic that teacher unions oppose voucher plans...For years, the unions have demanded recognition of teaching as a full profession...The irony:  Only under a voucher plan would teachers be as ‘professional' as are doctors or lawyers."  P. 112, Philip and Susan Jones, Parents Unite!, NY:  Wyden Books, 1976

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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
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