Monday, September 10, 2007

Will anyone ask the questions?

It may sound redundant, but I keep coming back to a simple question: If so many Utahns have come out against the voucher referendum, and so many more continue coming out against it, who is for it?

You have to start with the list of more than 90,000 Utahns who signed petitions to force the issue onto the ballot. And add the memberships of the various Utah organizations who formed a coalition to raise awareness about it. As of last week, you have to add the four candidates running for mayor of Salt Lake City. Derek Jensen reported in the Trib here ( that all four spoke up in the debate at the Main Library to say they opposed the idea. He explained,

When an e-mailer asked whether the politicians sent their children to public or private school, [Jenny] Wilson stood alone. Her son is in private school, she explained (a second is too young), though she is considering a public charter school called "Open Classroom" next year.

By contrast, [Dave] Buhler's five kids attended public schools and his wife served as a PTA president. [Keith] Christensen and [Ralph] Becker also sent their children to public schools. Wilson's quick defense: She opposes vouchers, saying "it is the wrong way to go." The other three hopefuls also oppose vouchers. Becker, a state lawmaker, calls the movement "a terrible idea" that should be stamped out.

Then came a word from the Trib itself on Saturday here ( And the word is pretty definitive:

But for us, the defining question in the voucher debate is simply this: Should taxpayer dollars go to private schools, many of which are religion-based? Our answer is an emphatic no.

The upside of the debate is that attention is being given to education in Utah, the editors wrote, and I agree. It's something you hear about every election year, but only as a side note, that everyone running for office at every level is "for" improving education. But few explain what they mean, what they intend to do, or how they intend to do it. This year's referendum forces everyone to step up and explain themselves, whether they're for or against the voucher referendum. And the editors go on to say,

There is hardly a more pressing issue in Utah than education, and rightly so. Vibrant public schools are where our young people learn many of the skills that will help them become informed, productive citizens able to support themselves and their families, pay taxes and otherwise contribute to the well-being of our communities, our state and the nation.

It is a shame that the Utah Legislature, especially its majority leadership, has lavished so much time and attention promoting what is by far the most comprehensive private school voucher law in the nation, based on the ultraconservative ideal of privatizing most government functions, including education. This ideological crusade has gone on for years in Utah, without majority public support, while public schools have suffered from a chronic lack of funding that is unrivaled in this country.

Minority children and those from low-income households are especially at risk in Utah, but vouchers offer little for them. Most of their parents can't afford and don't want to transfer, and transport, their children to the relatively few private schools, located almost exclusively along the Wasatch Front.

A vast majority of parents want public schools to meet their children's needs. And that takes a united effort of legislators, educators and the community. The voucher issue has been a distraction from that effort, a distraction that Utah's children can ill afford. Few will escape the voucher debate - the messages coming from both sides will be loud and insistent. All the more reason to pay attention, so that our votes are cast with a clear understanding of the issue.

This is a watershed moment for Utah education, for the voting public finally has an opportunity to pass judgment on the wisdom of spending precious tax dollars on private schools for the few. Maybe afterword, the legislators who represent us on Capitol Hill will finally give their undivided attention to the collaborative task of improving the public school system that is the key to Utah's future.

I hope that sometime in the coming weeks, someone at the Trib will ask the same questions I've raised here, and try to get the answers from the people in Michigan and Virginia and elsewhere who are pushing so hard to change Utah -- and maybe even question those lawmakers who were so easily tempted to take the money and do their bidding.

P.S. Thanks to Utah Amicus for featuring this blog on its blog. I have meant to say 'thank you' also to the handful of others who have linked to my questions, including John Moeller for his mention here ( I agree with his point that voters should read House Bill 148 before voters on it, and ask the questions that arise from reading it. So far as I can tell, no one has yet published a piece-by-piece analysis of the bill and how those individual pieces will affect the state budget, class sizes in public schools, or anything else. All I've seen and read yet in the media is a three- or four-bullet note summarizing it, and that just doesn't do justice to the issue.

At his blog, John writes,

Despite having financial accountability holes that you could drive a truck through, the bill very clearly lacks coursework requirements and attendance requirements for eligible schools. The bill also does not require a school to be accredited, and if a teacher doesn't have a baccalaureate degree, only requires a teacher to "have special skills, knowledge, or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in the subjects taught." Without coursework requirements or school accreditation, this could be anything.

And more, so visit his blog here (

By the way, does anyone know how the conscripted lobbyists did in their fundraising report to the Speaker at last week's meeting? Paul Rolly mentioned the meeting again here ( in the Trib but I haven't heard or read what came from it. Mr. Rolly added another note about the school bus that carried Utahns for Public Schools on its state tour last month. He wrote,

The pro-voucher "Parents for Choice in Education" folks seem to be a little loose with their facts as they seek to define the debate on the voucher issue, which faces its big test on the ballot in November. In their recent newsletter, the voucher advocates wrote: "The education establishment continues to use public resources paid for by your tax dollars, in their campaign to take choice away from Utah parents," the newsletter said. "This week in the launch of their campaign, opponents of parental choice drove a Salt Lake School District bus across three counties."

Wrong! The bus in question was rented from the private company Serv-A-Bus, using the Utahns for Public Schools' own money. No public money or resource was used. Lisa Johnson, who arranged for the private bus, says she will be happy to provide an invoice and the bus driver's cell phone number for any skeptics.

The strange thing is, the most recent PCE newsletter still tells a different story, even after Mr. Rolly's item appeared in the Trib. (A friend near me signed up to get it, and I admit to being curious. And frankly, I hope they'll use it to give a piece-by-piece explanation of House Bill 148, but no luck yet.) Instead of just giving the facts that Mr. Rolly explained, the PCE newsletter says this:

In last week's update, we noted that the leading group opposing Referendum 1 used a Salt Lake School District bus in their campaign launch. The spouse of one of their spokespersons contacted us and said that the district bus was not part of their event, but just happened to be at the same place at the same time for an unrelated school-sponsored field trip, and that choice opponents rented their bus from a private company.

See, the PCE version still makes it sound like something sinister happened. School bus or no school bus, why can't we have a point-by-point discussion of the referendum proposal instead?

Speaking of something sinister, I should post the very next section of the PCE newsletter for anyone who hasn't seen it. It reads,

We are glad to see them paying attention to campaign regulations that prohibit the use of public resources, paid for by taxpayers, for political activities. We hope that this means that we will not see any more anti-choice rallies at public school events, nor speeches against Referendum 1 at school assemblies, nor campaign materials sent home with innocent students who are there to learn, not to be pawns in a political game.

Aren't public schools, for lack of a better word, public facilities? And can't organizations arrange to hold public meetings in them? If that's what this refers to, then I don't think the newsletter editors have a good understanding of the rights of Utah citizens, and this amounts to simple intimidation. We're not pawns ourselves, and I think it cheapens the issue to refer to the matter as a "political game." I don't consider the future of Utah to be a "game."

Is this what we've come to?