Parents, grandparents, citizens: A broad and serious public dialogue is needed now. The subject is familiar, although the name has changed from year to year: tuition tax credits, private school vouchers and now, in an effort to improve a negative image, even "scholarships." All of these are state tax-funded efforts to pay for some people to send their children to any conceivable private school.
This year, many legislators desire this proposal to be on a fast track and to be considered in the first weeks of the legislative session.
The Utah State Board of Education has opposed each bill proposed to date, although the board's position has not been unanimous. Here is my summary of why many of us feel the idea should be defeated.
First, it detracts from efforts toward our first responsibility: to provide a quality uniform public school system available to all children. Public and parental support for quality education would become diffused as educational opportunities are fragmented.
Second, legal opinions and common-sense reading of the Utah State Constitution show that such a new state tax-supported "private school" system may violate both the spirit and the letter of the constitution, which disallows appropriation of public money for religious instruction. Of course, not all private schools in Utah are operated by religious entities, but most are.
Third, management and accountability responsibilities of the Utah State Board of Education and local school boards and the fiscal and legislative duties of the state Legislature would be almost totally eliminated when applied to these new publicly supported but privately controlled and operated voucher or scholarship schools. What happens to the core curriculum, state mandated assessments, attendance expectations, accreditation and more if your tax dollars are distributed with no or little oversight?
Fourth, marginal and extreme political, social and religious views and practices would most definitely proliferate in many such new tax-supported private schools. What would stop tax dollars from being spent on private school systems that may be in direct conflict with our public values?
Fifth, the proposal encourages a two-tiered system of education: one system for the affluent who can afford the enriched education that money can buy for their children; and one system for the rest of the children, a public school system abandoned by those of higher income, left to become the poor public schools familiar in many other countries.
In summary, I believe vouchers stand in the way of the solid efforts of our elected officials to improve our schools. Such schemes are not constitutional, and they would allow some parents and private interests to circumvent the standards and requirements developed by our elected officials to assure quality education available to each child. They would fragment our present schools and polarize our citizens.
To help your own children is a high ideal; to help all children is nobler.
Kim R. Burningham of Bountiful is chairman of the Utah State Board of Education.