Utah’s Referendum 1 — School Vouchers

School vouchers are the talk of the town these days here in Utah, and for good reason. The outcome of Referendum 1 could decide where your children go to school — that is, if it fails. If it passes, you can take your children to school pretty much wherever you durn well please. So why such resistance to Referendum 1? Let’s intimately converse.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had several discussions with people both for and against school vouchers. In my experience, there is a high correlation between opinion of school vouchers and opinion of the role of government in education. That is, those who feel that government should provide our children’s education are against school vouchers; conversely, those who feel that government should stay out of education are generally for school vouchers. That’s a simple enough concept. Still, some find the concept that education should be completely privatized to be far-fetched, radical, and on the fringe of insanity. But is it? I’ve consistently heard a few arguments advocating government-managed education and I have counter-arguments to accompany them:

But it’s our children! Surely we can’t trust our children’s education to the corporate evils of America!

I say, why not? Since when has the government performed better than capitalism? If you haven’t studied Adam Smith or the concept of the “invisible hand” in the marketplace, it makes sense to think corporate America is evil. After all, they make such hefty profits by stealing your money and bombarding you with ads. When we mix that with thoughts of our children’s education, it can be a daunting image that make some appalled to idea. But should it?

One reason why government exists is to break up monopolies. Interestingly enough, a monopoly is one of the instances where capitalism doesn’t work as it should. A monopoly creates a situation where one company has such a large consumer base and so much leverage that no other company stands a chance entering the market. When there is only one provider of a type of good, both suppliers and consumers don’t have many alternatives. When consumers don’t have alternatives, the monopoly can charge almost whatever it wants. They can also run as inefficiently as they would like and still be profitable; after all, where else are the customers going to go? Because the company has amassed so many customers, they have such leverage that they can squash any competitor that dares to enter the market.

In contrast, what happens in a free market? It’s survival of the fittest. Businesses compete for your money. They have to or they don’t survive. How do they compete? They run more efficiently. They target specific needs. They innovate. They give you more for your money than the competitor. Standards? You set them. If they’re not meeting them, you go somewhere else. You look for something better because you can.

With that in mind, isn’t it interesting that anti-voucher citizens would trust in the government, the biggest monopoly of all, to provide their children’s education? To you, public school is “free” in the rhetorical sense. Private schools, on the other hand, cost you money. It’s amazing that private schools currently even exist. Their competition is giving away its products for “free!”

Poor families won’t have access to a good education.

There’s a specific concept here that I want to avoid for now: vouchers won’t provide enough money for poor students to attend private schools. I’ll address this issue later. Right now, I’m talking in a more generic, yet even more extreme sense: if education was completely privatized — as in, we paid no taxes for schooling…there were no vouchers…there were no public schools…we only paid private schools out-of-pocket. The argument is still, if not emphasized even more, that poor students would not be able to afford an education.

I completely disagree. Any good set of parents will tell you that their children are one of, if not the, most important things in their lives. If that’s true, then their children’s education is at the top of their list of needs — yes, even above the satellite dish on the side of their trailer home. This may be on the edge of being politically correct for some, but I dare say that any man physically and emotionally “well” could pay for his children’s private education even without vouchers. Maybe not with his current working status, but, if he deemed it important enough, he could put forth the extra effort and prioritize well enough to provide for his children’s education.

What about the divorced mom trying her hardest to raise four children on her own? These cases do exist and should be treated, but a blanket approach of public education is not the solution.

What if a poor family made the wrong choice and decided to buy a giganto house instead of tending to their children’s needs? This is the harsh reality of life where the line is drawn for governmental blanket approaches. As long as humans are fallible, the government cannot and should not make parental choices nor attempt to bring all families to an equal status. If government attempted to solve such a problem, we would all be paying a new “housing tax” and the government in turn would give us assigned cookie-cutter houses of relatively equal quality to live in. Oh, and unless you decide to leave the neighborhood completely, you can’t switch houses. And no, you can’t choose a different builder or a different style. But hey, everybody has a decent place to live! And at least your house is “free,” right? Sound anything like public education? Frighteningly so.

So, back to the concept I mentioned before. Let’s say you were completely dismayed at the idea that a poor family would be striving to get the even the cheapest, lowest quality of education. How good of a school would the family need to afford to be deemed “fair enough.” In other words, if there were 1,000 schools of different qualities and costs, how many would a family need to be able to afford in order for their children to get a quality education? 300? 500? 700? Now that you have your answer, let’s look at a report by The Sutherland Institute. Before discussing the article, I will preface it by noting that The Sutherland Institute is a pro-voucher institution, but their report is specific and detailed and is by far superior than any of the gossip you’ll hear on the back row of Relief Society. As it states, excluding a few extreme outliers, the average annual tuition of private schools in Utah is $4,519.97. The value of a student voucher for the lowest-income family according to the actual Referendum 1 bill is $3,000. What does this mean? While the voucher won’t completely buy a poor family the best of education, it will close the gap enough to where, I believe, a poor family is in reach of obtaining a higher quality education than public schools currently offer. And, if the voucher system worked as planned, public schools would increase their value enough that the family wouldn’t need to choose a private school anyway.

Referendum 1 is full of flaws.

While I beg to differ that it’s full of flaws, I do agree that it has flaws. Any bill that goes through legislation has flaws. Heck, the Constitution had flaws too and the authors knew it. In particular, they could not agree on the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of members in the House of Representatives, the question being whether slaves should be counted as citizens or not. Rather than stalemating the Constitution and dooming the country’s future, the Founding Fathers chose to confront the issue at a later time and came to a temporary agreement known as the Three-fifths Compromise. Just as the authors of the Constitution were able to set aside differences/flaws to accomplish a greater good, so must citizens treat Referendum 1. Does this mean that we must overlook massive loopholes and flaws that will seriously doom the final goals of a piece of legislation? No, but I personally believe the greater good of private education outweighs the flaws in Referendum 1.

So, if Referendum 1 were to pass, what should we expect? Considering $3,000 is only half of what a public school spends on a student, private schools are still at a severe disadvantage. Improvements will come slowly and it will take a while for the worst private schools to get weeded out. In countries like Chile and Sweden, two countries which have similar school choice programs, it has taken five or ten years. Still, I’m hopeful that the improvements will come.

This article hasn’t addressed every controversy surrounding Referendum 1, school vouchers, or private education. Nor was that my intent. Instead, I thought I would provide a base for an intimate conversation by stating the major arguments I have heard and my accompanying rebuttals. Surely it won’t appease all the concerns and I still plan on driving to the voting booth with my wife so we can negate each other votes. Now that I’ve taken my turn, I invite you to join….the Intimate Conversation.

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