What the Utah Vote Is About: Public Education by Other Means

Utah voters are going to the polls on Tuesday to accept or reject what would be the nation’s first state-wide school voucher program. According to Utah’s biggest media outlets and the nation’s largest public school employee union, this program would undermine public education. That view, while understandable coming from an organization that lives off the current system, is mistaken.

The purpose of public education is not to perpetuate a particular management structure, or employ a certain set of bureaucrats or union officials. The purpose of public education is to see that every child has access to good schools, and is prepared both for success in private life and participation in public life. Anyone who genuinely believes in those ideals of public education should support whatever system best fulfills them.

Correctly understood, school choice programs are not a threat to public education, they are simply public education by other means. They ensure that every family has access to the schools they deem best for their kids, whether operated by public officials or independent educators.

Some people worry that  a system of unfettered parental choice would fail to promote social cohesion – something that our public schools are widely believed to do. That view is precisely backward. There are numerous studies comparing the tolerance and civic engagement of public and private school students and graduates, and this research either favors the private schools or finds no significant differences between the sectors.

And as for Balkanizing communities, that is sadly something that our traditional district-based public schools have been doing since their inception. In fact, my Cato associate Neal McCluskey has documented nearly 150 battles over the content of public schooling from all over the country – in the 2005-2006 school year alone. From sex education to the singing of Christmas carols, our single official system of schools forces us into unnecessary conflict. A true system of school choice would eliminate these conflicts, allowing parents to get the sort of education they value for their own children without compelling them to force their preferences on their neighbors, as our existing school system has done for more than a century.

The voucher program before Utah’s voters may not be without its imperfections, but to portray it as a threat to public education completely misses the point. School choice is simply public education by other means, and, in many ways, a better means than the district-based system we inherited from the 19th century.