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Voucher defeat doesn't solve question of who controls education

Published November 11, 2007 12:00 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The future of education in Utah seems bright after the debate and vote on Referendum 1. It's bright because politics are not policy and, though politics have determined our collective response to House Bill 148, politics have not even begun to address the underlying issue: Who controls the education of children?

What if that had been the ballot question? What if Referendum 1 stated, "Parents control the upbringing and education of their children. Yes or no?" How do you think that vote would have turned out?

Even if the nearly 190,000 of us who voted for Referendum 1 accepted the anti-voucher majority's generous invitation to collaborate in making our public schools the greatest in the world, the two camps face a crucial point of contention because it seems we disagree over this question of control.

The Utah Constitution provides no guidance. It mandates the creation and maintenance of our public schools but does not require all children to attend them. State statute does address the question to a degree, but only confuses matters more. It imposes compulsory attendance for all, but then allows families to choose private schools or home school.

Utah Code 53A-6-102 (1) (a) and (b) states that education is "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments," but continues to read, "The primary responsibility for the education of children in the state resides with their parents or guardians and the role of state and local governments is to support and assist parents in fulfilling that responsibility."

The U.S. Constitution is clear in this respect. A fundamental liberty interest exists for parents in the upbringing and education of their children, while there is no such fundamental right to an education (or food, clothing, shelter and health care . . . unless you're a ward of the state at Point of the Mountain!). And yet, Utah's education experts, from BYU to the U. of U. to every leader of public school-related associations, seem to think that all children are their children and parents exist to support these experts and their seasoned opinions.

Surely lesser questions will be confronted and might be decided before this one. Merit pay to increase teacher salaries, abandoning No Child Left Behind, partisan elections of the Utah State Board of Education members, allowing all teachers to act as professionals and not just babysitters, creating new standards of success for students, decentralizing decision-making to allow true "neighborhood" schools, and ridding the system of its one-size-fits-all mentality are just some of the issues that might be decided in upcoming legislative sessions.

And what about the students failed by the public school system? One-third of Utah's Hispanic students drop out and another 4-in-10 don't graduate with a diploma. In other words, three-fourths of these students fail in our public schools. Defeating the new private school voucher law didn't make them magically disappear. If anything, their plight has worsened as they are left to languish in their effectively-segregated boundary schools.

None of these very important issues will be settled with finality until we first settle the core of our contentions. We can continue to ignore this question and fight endlessly over education policy, or we can look in the mirror and determine our collective education identity. Either we are a free and pluralistic people in control of our own destinies, or we are Plato's children of the state - both ideals acting in the name of the common good.

So which will it be, Utah? Is it the state and its children, or parents and their children?


* PAUL MERO is president of the Sutherland Institute, which supports taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools and other conservative public-policy initiatives.




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