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Editorial

Was school voucher debate 'all about the children'?

Now that Summit County residents’ mailboxes are no longer stuffed with incessant propaganda from the friends and foes of school vouchers, is a good time to review what was learned from both sides of that emotionally charged debate.

From the passionate effort put forth by Parents for Choice in Education and their wide base of support, voters learned there is a growing undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the Utah public-school system. And, it is important to note, Park City schools were not immune from those criticisms.

Pro-voucher lobbyists were able to enlist plenty of disgruntled Park City School District parents who said they were leery of throwing more tax money into public schools while still having their kids in overcrowded classrooms with ineffective teachers.

School administrators take note: Taxpayers are getting tired of hearing complaints about teachers’ benefit packages and the unfairness of No Child Left Behind’s accountability standards. Local property owners in the private sector are keenly aware of their own shrinking health-care benefits and are used to being held to quantifiable performance standards in order to earn pay increases.

Utahns for Public Schools, however, worked to convince residents that vouchers would take money away from already strapped public-education budgets.

Both sides of the voucher debate claimed their plan would serve the best interests of Utah’s children and both touted statistics to support their claims. Anti-voucher lobbyists said diverting tax monies to private institutions would set a dangerous precedent for school districts across the country, while voucher advocates claimed helping students go to private schools would alleviate overcrowding in their public counterparts.

But in most of the pre-election debates, the facts seemed to matter less to voters than the underlying philosophy of school vouchers.

The core of the pro-voucher argument was that tax subsidies to help offset private-school tuition would give parents more school choices. extension, they said, public schools would also benefit.

On the other side, voucher opponents characterized vouchers as an attack on public education and an unconstitutional way to use public tax funds to support private institutions, including religious ones.

The expensive media blitzes, however, made us suspicious of both. With Parents for Choice posing as advocates for families too poor to afford private school and Utahns for Public Education harping about the state’s undernourished education system, we had to wonder where the money was coming from for the glossy mailers; the newspaper, TV and radio ads; and the nightly phone polls.

In the end we were left wondering what could have been done with all of the resources spent on a voucher battle that should have been put to rest by the state legislature.

In January, obviously oblivious to the wishes of their constituents, the Utah Legislature approved a school voucher bill. It took a petition demanding a referendum to convince the governor to put the question to the voters. On Nov. 6, Utah’s voucher referendum was defeated by a margin of 62 to 38 percent.

It would have made more sense if the advertising dollars spent by PCE had been used to establish a nonprofit statewide private school scholarship endowment.

And as for the money spent by the teachers’ union to defeat vouchers, what if that had been applied to in-service training to help teachers meet the new federal education standards

While we’d like to believe "it is all about the children" too often the truth is that it is all about the money.


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