About Utah: Yay or nay to vouchers? I vote ...

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2007 12:20 a.m. MDT

Columnist's note: In three weeks, Utahns will vote on one of the most debated, polarizing issues in state history: private school tax vouchers. My past two columns have presented points-of-view from voucher proponent Richard Eyre and opponent Pat Rusk. Today: based on their respective arguments, how I intend to vote on Nov. 6.

First, I would like to thank Richard Eyre and Pat Rusk for talking to me about vouchers. I couldn't have picked smarter, more personable or persuasive advocates. When each of them finished talking, I was ready to bust through the locker room wall.

If I were running for office or in charge of a large company, I'd want to be, well, them. I'd trust either one to raise and educate anyone's children, mine included.

And yet, for all their similar fine leadership qualities and an obvious shared concern for education, they could not come from more divergent perches when it comes to vouchers.

Eyre, who thinks vouchers are a really good idea, sees the issue from outside the public school classroom looking in.

Rusk, on the other hand, who thinks vouchers are a really bad idea, sees the issue from inside the classroom looking out.

One speaks for the parents, one speaks for the kids.

From where I stand, those polar opposite viewpoints synthesize the voucher debate into a recognizable either-or question that I can get my hands, if not my mind, around: Should education of our children be primarily up to the private sector, which means essentially parents, or should it be primarily up to a public system, which means essentially the government?

Vouchers are a step — a rather big step — toward privatizing education.

Is that a good thing or is that a not good thing?

I don't know the answer to such a question, but I do think that would be a more fair question at the ballot box, rather than veiling the debate in a voucher cloud.

Maybe the Founding Fathers got it wrong. Maybe education should have never gone public in the first place. Who is to say that "education" belongs alongside life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right? Why must we guarantee education to all? We don't do the same when it comes to, say, health care.

Maybe the American tradition of a public education is as myopic and misguided as us not using the metric system and treating soccer like a minor sport.

Then again, it may be that the Founding Fathers got it right. Maybe the very backbone of America is steeled by the notion that we are all entitled equally to the same educational opportunities and no one, not in the USA of George Washington and George W. Bush and everyone in between, gets left behind.

Maybe the best deterrent to misuse of power and privilege is a well-educated citizenry across the board.

It seems to me the only way to absolutely answer the private-public debate is to try one system and then the other and see which one worked best.

But attempting to answer, or obfuscate, that question by compromising what is already in place — a guaranteed public education for all system that has been in effect for over 200 years — seems as subversive as it is unfair.

In the end, it wasn't an answer from either Eyre or Rusk that made up my mind on vouchers. It was two questions posed by Rusk, who asked: "If this is really about the free market, if that's what's going to make things better, then why are we offering government subsidies to open the free market? If you don't like government programs, why would you want to start this new government program of vouchers?"

On vouchers, put me down as a no.


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527. voucher proponent Richard Eyre and opponent Pat Rusk. Today: based on their respective arguments, how I intend to vote on Nov. 6.

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