by Howard Stephenson


Voucher opponents, confident that they will prevail in a popular vote, are demanding “Let the people decide on vouchers”.

What they really mean is “Let the people decide on vouchers, unless they vote in favor of vouchers. Then let the courts decide.” Everyone knows that, if vouchers are approved by the voters, many of the same people and groups who are yelling “Let the people decide” will wait a full two nanoseconds before yelling “Let the courts decide.”

Most voucher opponents will not abide by a decision of the people if the voters support vouchers. Here’s how the 5-step process works.

1. Let the Legislature decide? Yes, unless they decide to support vouchers.
2. Let the people decide? Yes, unless they decide to support vouchers.
3. Let the state courts decide? Yes, unless they decide to support/uphold vouchers.
4. Let the federal courts decide? Yes, unless they decide to support/uphold vouchers.
5. Let voucher opponents decide? Yes, even though they are a minority, there are enough of them to justify stopping the program.

This is how our political process works (at least the first four steps), but let’s make sure we understand what is meant by “letting the people decide.”

A little too confident about victory in a popular election?
Current polls show wide opposition to vouchers with people believing that they’re just to help rich kids to attend private schools.

But what do polls mean?  In 2004, supporters of a statewide sales tax increase to preserve open space and build convention centers were confident of victory. The polls showed overwhelming support, about 2 to 1 in the early and intermediate stages of the campaign. They had the money, organization, smart consultants, and overwhelming media support.

The mantra was “Let the people decide because we don’t like the Legislature’s decision not to impose this tax increase.”

Right after the polls closed on election night, Dan Jones confidently and cheerfully predicted that Initiative 1 would pass by about a 60-40 margin. Supporters partied on TV in a swanky downtown hotel, and opponents sat at home watching the results come in on their lap tops. When the dust settled, support for the tax increase came in at 45.1%. Even opponents were surprised because, after all, Dan Jones had already told us who would win.

Since steps three and four were not available, supporters of the tax increase went straight to step five and argued that even though they didn’t get 50%, they got 45% and that was enough support to convince the Legislature that “something” had to be done about open space.

When voters understand the cost-savings, they’ll vote for vouchers

I predict that when the people really understand that vouchers simply allow parents to volunteer to have taxpayers spend an average of $2,000 per year for their child instead of the $7,500 currently being spent, they’ll vote overwhelmingly for vouchers.

When voters understand the tax savings of vouchers, they’ll vote yes.  The pro-voucher Friedman Foundation recently released a study demonstrating that school choice programs have saved school districts and taxpayers $444 million from 1990 to 2006.

Dr. Susan Aud, who prepared the study, wrote “to keep our analysis conservative, we have not only excluded from our analysis all reductions in cost outside the category of current expenditures, but we have excluded all reductions in current expenditure costs other than instructional costs.” In other words, when calculating savings, the study does not include capital and debt service costs and non-instructional operating costs such as administration, transportation, and facility maintenance.

Aud also wrote “[w]e make this conservative assumption to ensure that our analysis takes into account the widespread complaints brought by school choice opponents about fixed costs.” This is a very conservative approach, especially from a Utah perspective, since Utah’s school enrollment is rapidly increasing and nearly all educational costs — except for district administration and possible some others — are clearly variable. Even in areas where enrollment is not growing, costs are variable in the long run due to the possibility of consolidating schools.

Friedman’s study accounts for the costs of providing vouchers to students who were attending or would have been attending private schools even without vouchers.

If Friedman says that vouchers save money, why did the Legislative Fiscal Analyst say vouchers would cost money in Utah?
When preparing the fiscal note, the fiscal analyst did not even include any savings due to students leaving public schools for private schools due to vouchers, even though he admitted that there clearly would be savings.

We’ve experienced other subterfuge in the voucher debate including the State School Board deciding to disregard the law requiring them to implement the part of the voucher law that was not subject to the referendum, and the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel’s decision to write the ballot language in a way that leaves voters confused about whether a vote for the proposition supports vouchers or opposes vouchers.

But I’m confident right will prevail when the people have all the information.