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Education Notebook on Education

October 11, 2007

October 11, 2007 | Education Notebook on Education

Why School Choice in Utah Scares the Big Teachers' Union

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK:
Why School Choice in Utah Scares the Big Teachers' Union

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By Dan Lips

Next month, voters in Utah will go to the polls to decide whether to give parents the opportunity to choose the best school for their children. The National Education Association is pouring resources into the state to defeat the initiative.

Signed into law by Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., in February, the Parent Choice in Education Act would offer tuition scholarships to each of Utah's 500,000 or so public school students and to all low-income children currently attending private schools. The scholarships would be worth between $500 and $3,000, with students from lower-income families receiving greater assistance. By 2020, every child in the state would be eligible to attend a school of choice with a scholarship.

But special interest groups that benefit from the current public education system fear the prospect of giving families choices beyond traditional public schools. Utahans for Public Schools - a coalition group backed by the state teachers unions and school boards association, the NAACP, and the ACLU - led a petition drive to force a ballot referendum on the new legislation. More recently, the National Education Association - the nation's largest teachers union - funneled $1.5 million into the anti-school choice campaign.

In the weeks ahead, Utah voters will face a barrage of campaign commercials claiming the new school voucher program will devastate public education in the state. But the evidence from other states that have implemented school choice suggests that this is just fear-mongering.

Based on that evidence, here's what Utahans can expect from school choice. First, the families that take advantage of the program will be happier. Surveys and focus groups of families participating in scholarship programs find that parents are more satisfied with their children's schools when they have choice. Parents report being happier with their school's teachers, learning environment, and values.

Second, students who use scholarships to transfer into private schools will likely improve academically. Researchers have evaluated the effect that school choice has on academic achievement by comparing the test scores of students who used vouchers to transfer into private school with their peers who remained in public schools. The evidence shows that students using scholarships generally show significant academic improvement.

Third, schools will respond positively to greater parental choice, taking steps to treat parents and students as valued customers. Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby studied the effects of parental choice in Arizona, Michigan, and Milwaukee, and she found that public schools perform better when families have the option of switching schools. In communities that have widespread school choice, schools regularly advertise in the newspaper and teachers go door-to-door during the summer to tell parents about their particular school's benefits.

But none of this evidence makes any difference to the National Education Association and other education special interest groups. For them, this referendum - and the school choice issue generally - is all about control. Who should control the $500 billion spent on K-12 public education each year-parents or the education establishment?

If the Utah program moves forward, parents in other communities may begin clamoring for the same opportunity to choose their children's school. More states could then follow Utah in offering widespread parental choice in education. This is what the National Education Association fears.

The NEA has already slipped $1.5 million to the anti-school choice campaign in Utah, and reports suggest the union is willing to spend as much as $3 million. That may sound like a lot, but it's a small investment for a powerful special interest group trying to protect its stranglehold over a $500 billion a year industry. In other words, expect plenty of heavy-handed anti-choice commercials.

Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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