Even in a state that has grabbed hold of its public school monopoly with both hands and refused to budge, the idea of choice is gaining some ground.

In case you hadn't noticed, Utah's largest school districts are in danger of breaking up. Thanks to a new law, any city with at least 65,000 people can now form its own school district, and any smaller city can join with a neighboring city to do the same. It may not be a revolution, but at least people now have a way to voice their dissent.

Comedian Victor Borge used to do a routine in which he talked about his uncle, the inventor. The uncle had come up with a new soft-drink formula he had decided to call "1-up." When that didn't work, he changed it a little and renamed it "2-up." He kept trying until he finally gave up with "6-up." "Who knew?" he asked, as the audience roared.

But in this case, Rep. David Cox, R-Lehi, hit 7-up right away with an idea whose time, unlike private school vouchers, seems to have come.

Several months ago, Cox came to visit the Deseret Morning News editorial board to argue for this law, armed with an evangelist's zeal and several papers showing that smaller districts perform better and cost less. Originally, he wanted to allow even smaller districts, but the idea of restricting them to city boundaries was a compromise that proved popular with local governments and lawmakers. Cox, no fan of vouchers or tuition tax credits, believed people would jump at the chance to have greater control over school districts that are small and manageable.

And really, that's the aim of most school-choice proponents. They want to make education officials more responsive.

As it turns out, it was one of the few times when a public official has not overstated his case.

At the moment, Cottonwood Heights, Sandy, Draper and Midvale are studying whether to join forces and break away from the Jordan District (although this effort seems to be losing steam). West Valley City is pondering a break with the Granite District, as is South Salt Lake. Salt Lake County is considering one for its vast unincorporated areas. Lindon and Orem are studying whether to form districts in Utah County.

And now an opinion poll by Dan Jones & Associates, commissioned by this newspaper and KSL-TV, shows that 54 percent of registered voters statewide approve of the new law, and an amazing 59 percent said they would support cities breaking up large school districts even if it means paying higher property taxes.

This isn't a unique idea. A lot of large districts nationwide are toying with decentralization or forms thereof. Seattle, Houston, San Francisco, St. Paul, Boston and Chicago have experimented with ways to give more power to principals and local schools. In San Francisco, parents can choose which public school their children attend, with few restrictions. Public schools, in return, have begun specializing in areas such as college preparation or the arts in order to attract students.

A USA Today story last April said this trend is because, since 1932, public school enrollment has doubled nationwide, while the number of districts has gone from about 127,000 to 16,000. Large institutions tend to get bloated and unresponsive.

I'm not sure whether any of the Utah cities mentioned above will actually form their own districts. Orem, for instance, is finding it still would have to pay for bonds in the old Alpine District if it left, which might negate any other savings. In the meantime, it's no coincidence that cities along the east side of Salt Lake County are so interested in the idea. They've been caught in a demographic taffy pull that has led Jordan and Granite districts to close east-side schools as the student population shifts to the west.

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Would west-side districts have the ability to raise money for new schools on their own? Would smaller districts lead to greater inequities? What about the money needed for special needs, such as English language training?

The answers to these questions, too, are matters of choice. Even people with a tight grip on the idea of traditional public education can see how even just looking at a radically different grip can lead to improvements.


Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com