Utah voters have rejected Referendum 1, a ballot proposal to approve a universal school-choice plan signed into law by Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., earlier this year.
The NEA spent $3.1 million on its anti-voucher campaign. Union affiliates and other liberal groups poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Why? Because these opponents of parental choice feared the national implications of Utah implementing its voucher plan.
Teacher unions have long warned that the sky would fall and public schools would collapse if a widespread voucher program took effect. If their dire predictions didn't come to pass once every Utah student was eligible to receive a voucher, the teachers unions' scare tactics would be proven false and wouldn't work elsewhere in the country.
Now school-choice opponents will trumpet that the Utah voucher vote signals that parental choice in education has lost momentum. But history shows that defeats at the ballot box don't spell an end to school-choice reforms.
In 2000, voters in California and Michigan rejected similar school-voucher ballot initiatives. NEA president Bob Chase declared that the "the thorough thrashing of vouchers in California and Michigan should be a death knell to a bad idea."
Over the past seven years, however, school-choice reforms have continued to blossom across the country, backed by growing bipartisan support. In 2001, Florida and Pennsylvania responded to the ballot initiative "death knell" by creating scholarship programs that today serve 50,000 lower-income children. Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington, D.C., have all enacted school-choice programs since 2000.
While school choice has made consistent gains lately, this progress is still far too slow for the millions of children who would benefit from new educational options. According to the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 33 percent of fourth graders scored "below basic" in reading, and among disadvantaged kids, 50 percent couldn't read. The majority of these kids who aren't receiving a quality education are among the 74 percent of American students who attend government-assigned public school.
The poor performance of our public schools isn't acceptable, and policymakers from both sides of the aisle know it. The long-favored "reform" of simply increasing public school funding has proven ineffective, and a growing number of legislators recognize that it's time to try something different. Democrats in states such as Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey and Minnesota are bucking their party's traditional allegiance with teachers unions by sponsoring school-choice programs.
Where might we see the next gains for school choice? One likely candidate is Louisiana. In 2007, Gov. Kathleen Blanco vetoed a tuition tax credit plan that passed the state legislature with broad support. Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal, however, is a strong school-choice supporter. In 2008, Louisiana could become the 14th state to provide public support for private school choice.
That will be little relief to the thousands of families in Utah who hoped to have the opportunity to send their children to better schools next year. The National Education Association has succeeded in delaying widespread school choice in Utah for at least another year. But the teachers unions shouldn't go overboard celebrating Utah families' loss. The movement to give parents the power to control their children's education is still in its beginning stages, and no single vote is going to stop it.
Dan Lips is an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: http://www.heritage.org.