Commentary

Choosing Choice: The battle for school choice in Utah

By David F. Salisbury
This article also appeared on National Review Online on March 2, 2005.

Utah missed an opportunity last week to show the rest of the nation the personal and financial benefits of school choice by voting down a bill that would have allowed parents to choose their children’s schools, public or private. Last-minute efforts by the state teachers’ union and public-school officials who opposed the bill overcame strong legislative and grassroots support for the measure, resulting in Friday’s 40-34 defeat in the Utah House.

HB39, the Tuition Tax Credit bill, would have allowed parents to enroll their children in private schools and then deduct some of the tuition costs from their state income-tax bill. Defeat of the bill means that parents will continue to be backseat drivers when it comes to educating their children. In any state where people pride themselves on strong families and self-reliance, preventing parents from making important decisions about their children’s education seems wrong.

There were many strong arguments in favor of the bill. Parents know their children best, and they, not bureaucrats, ought to make the important decisions about their children’s education. Sometimes parents need more options than just the local public school. No matter how hard public-school teachers try to help a child, sometimes it just doesn’t work. In those cases, parents need other options. The Tuition Tax Credit bill would have given them those options.

There were also practical and financial arguments for the Tax Credit bill. Utah is facing a massive increase in school enrollment due to a growing school-age population and migration from other states. Statewide K-12 school enrollment is predicted to increase by 100,000 over the next ten years.

To handle such massive growth, the government will have to fund and build 160 new schools and hire approximately 4,000 teachers. Utah already ranks among the most heavily taxed states in the nation; increasing taxes to pay for such a large number of new schools and teachers will be a heavy burden for taxpayers to bear.

The Tuition Tax Credit bill was one way to help to relieve the burden on public schools and taxpayers. If more children attend private schools, more spaces will become available in public schools, decreasing the demand for new buildings and teachers.

Also, the tuition tax credit would have saved the state money because the proposed tax credit was about half of what the state currently pays to educate a child in the public schools. The rest of the money would have been left in the public system, further easing the funding challenges on public schools. According to even the most conservative estimates of the number of children who would enroll in private schools, there is no question that the public schools and the state budget stood to benefit.

The final argument that the legislators who voted against the bill overlooked is that parental choice of schools provides incentive for positive changes in public schools. Experience with school choice in other parts of the country has shown that public schools respond constructively to increased competition from private schools.

In Milwaukee, for example (where children receive vouchers worth up to $5,783), the improvement in the public schools has been impressive. Students in public schools where at least two-thirds of the students were eligible for vouchers scored 8.1, 12.8, and 8.0 national percentile points higher on statewide exams in math, science, and language, respectively. Achievement gains were more modest for students in public schools where fewer students were eligible for vouchers.

The story in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona is similar. Public schools raised achievement in response to competition and the largest gains were in those public schools that faced the most competition.

Utah did not entirely miss its chance to support the educational choices of parents. The Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship bill passed the state house and senate. When Governor Huntsman signs it into law, parents of children with learning or other disabilities will be able to enroll their children in their choice of public or private school.

Now the spotlight shifts to other states that are considering school-choice legislation this year. South Carolina may pass a tuition tax-credit bill that would give parents income- and property-tax credits when they enroll children in private schools. Governor Bob Taft of Ohio is planning to expand the program in Cleveland that gives vouchers to kids to attend private schools; and Governor Jeb Bush has announced plans to further expand school-choice options in Florida. Undaunted, those who support school choice in Utah have vowed to continue their efforts to give choice to parents statewide.

David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.