Several years ago when she taught elementary school in Park City, well before she served her two terms as president of the Utah Education Association, Pat Rusk had a student who kept missing class.

When she summoned the boy's parents to tell them he was slipping behind because of his frequent absences, they explained that their son was skiing a lot because he wanted to win a gold medal in the Olympics.

"Well, then," she said, "I hope he can read the medal."

The story serves as a suitable introduction for a person who is at the front of the vanguard against private school vouchers.

Ms. Rusk sticks up for the kids.

And especially for those kids no one else might be sticking up for.

Her concern isn't with private schools per se, she says. Let them educate whomever chooses the non-public path.

Her concern is with any kind of private school aid that would help reduce America's public school system to second-class status.

"My biggest fear is that a voucher system doesn't really offer reform, just a way out," she says. "It creates a situation where eventually our public schools become a default. I don't want to see that happen here, where public schools are only for somebody else's kids."

As a case in point — make that four cases in point — the career educator, who concluded a four-year presidency of the UEA in 2006, talks about her family hosting foreign exchange students through the years from Poland, Spain, France and Brazil.

"Each one had been in a private school system," she says. "Where they came from, no one goes to public school."

The thought of that happening here — in the land of the free education and the home of those who protect it — leaves her the opposite of speechless. After helping lead the petition drive last spring that got the voucher issue on the ballot, she has been as vocal as a third-grader at recess in explaining why vouchers should be defeated.

"For me personally, it's about making sure kids, all kids, have someone sticking up for them," she says in explaining why she has chosen to speak out so passionately and independently. "Our public schools are the one place where everyone has a chance, where you can make something of yourself,

even if there's no one else out there to help you. In America that's what we promise. Everyone gets to be educated. All you have to do is show up and try, and it's yours. We guarantee that, don't we?

"But when we start giving out vouchers," she continues, "it's no longer an equal playing field."

Giving tax dollars in the form of vouchers to private schools would only widen the gap for the disadvantaged.

She scoffs when voucher proponents, most of them wealthy and privileged, compare their crusade to the civil-rights movement.

"When did we have a civil-rights movement paid for by billionaires?" she asks.

Rusk takes care to point out that it's not the kids whose parents are concerned about getting them into the right schools — public or private — that Rusk is worrying over. Nor is it the kids whose parents make sure they do their homework and go to class.

It's the ones who don't have parents like that.

"I hear people on the other side say it's all about parental choice," she says. "Do you trust parents or don't you? I wish it were that simple.

"Public schools are not perfect, and people have always had the private school choice," she says. "We've educated children side by side for years. There's always been competition from private schools, and I'm fine with that.

"But the proposed voucher law doesn't change any of that. It gives no new choices. It just says that taxpayers will now pay for that choice."

Rusk takes solace in the fact that all previous efforts to pass similar legislation in other areas of the nation have failed. "They've never won anywhere when put to a vote of the people," she says. "Not so far."

She shudders to think the trend could end in the state where she's taught and been a significant part of the teachers union and students' lives for more than 25 years.

"They say it's going to help all these low-income kids, but it's an empty promise," Rusk says. "Maybe 50 will say vouchers changed their lives. But what about the rest?"

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.