Parents of learning-disabled children and advocates of educational choice cheered last week when Utah Governor John Huntsman, Jr. signed a bill making Utah the second state in the nation to enact a voucher program enabling students with disabilities to attend a private school of their parents’ choice. Annual scholarships will amount to about $5,500 per student. However, leaders of the powerful teachers’ union, the Utah Education Association (UEA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, did not join in the celebration.
In the February 18 edition of the UEA’s Capitol Bulletin, union lobbyists had derided the legislation as “a voucher bill without accountability,” noting that private schools receiving voucher students “do not have to meet the same teacher certification and regulatory requirements imposed on public schools.” In addition, Education Week reported March 9 that the UEA’s fear is that the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships will become a precedent that will pave the way for more extensive school choice — not only vouchers for special-needs children but the general school population. The teacher union worked to defeat a universal tuition tax credit for Utah families that failed on a 40-34 vote in the Utah House of Representatives a few weeks ago. The measure would have given taxpayers a credit of $500 to $3,750, depending on family income, for students who transfer to private schools. In addition to according parents more say-so in their children’s education, the bill was designed to ease the impact on the state budget of a huge boom in Utah’s school population projected over the next 10 years.
The teacher union fears are well-founded: A taste of freedom in education is likely only to whet the appetite for more freedom of education. Florida’s experience since becoming in 2001 the first state to offer special-needs vouchers — the John M. McKay Scholarships Program for Students With Disabilities — is instructive. As the Carson Smith program in Utah will do, McKay started small — with fewer than 1,000 students the first year. But within two years McKay Scholarships burgeoned to more than 9,000 (and now exceed 12,000). A Manhattan Institute study in 2003 found that 93 percent of Florida parents were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their McKay schools, and with the special services that were provided to their children.
Furthermore, the success of the McKays have fed the expansion of other forms of school choice in Florida, ranging from corporate-generated scholarships to vouchers tied to the raising of education standards. Governor Jeb Bush recently introduced a new voucher program that would be part of education reform to help children who chronically score at the bottom of state reading tests.
Given the leadership of Governor Huntsman and key legislators, the pattern in Utah is likely to be similar: an expansion of special-needs vouchers followed by passage of tax credits to spread the benefits of educational freedom more widely. And once again, the teacher union will be trying desperately to hoard all of education funding as a mechanism to protect the vested interests of an education establishment rather than progressively meeting the needs of actual children and families.
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