If, tomorrow, voters decide school vouchers are good, the question is: good for what and for whom? Would vouchers solve the problems with education that advocates claim as the reasons they want to leave public schools?

The voucher debate reveals the unintended consequences of how our attitudes and behavior pull us apart as a society. We are fast becoming a nation between the haves and have nots — those who have an education and those who don't.

Those wanting vouchers argue that it gives low-income parents "choice"; however, what it highlights is our limited understanding of the plight of poor families. Many are two-parent families with both parents holding two and even three of the abundance of low-paying jobs; many are single parents who struggle to make it through the day. They live in crowded, rundown rentals, barely afford food; and if they're lucky, have a jalopy, with old tires, that keeps breaking down and necessitating a search at a junkyard for a used alternator or fuel pump, and then finding a friend who knows how to replace the old one.

To use low-income parents as a way to promote school vouchers is deceiving and puts them in a situation no parents want to be in — denying their children an education. Yet, choosing among putting food on the table, medical care, transportation to a job, or coming up with the $2,000 plus to pay the tuition difference, are exactly the choices they have to make.

Choice? Without money, there is no choice!

The voucher debate should make us realize the social and economic divide that exists in our communities and how the values that hold us together are being eroded by a sense of entitlement and concern for self. We only have to recall the media images of the Katrina disaster. It showed how some thought the poor people who did not join the stream of SUVs fleeing the flooded city "had a choice" and simply decided to stay. But without money, they had no choice.

Another disquieting thing was the lack of understanding and empathy on the part of government bureaucrats for those in need. When the flood victims were struggling to survive, they were told to log on to the FEMA Web site to get an application for assistance.

Now, we have voucher advocates saying low-income parents can find out how to select a private school they could afford — the "Blue Light Special"? — by logging on to a Web site. Without a computer?

On the other side, there are those that claim private schools have no accountability. Well, accountability without oversight and sanctions is worse than no accountability. To protect the status quo is equally wrong. We must stop blaming each other — teachers, parents, zealots — and work together to solve the real problem: We need a new education system.

Under our state Constitution, legislators "... shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a uniform system of public schools, which shall be open to all children of the state, and be free from sectarian control." The "buck stops" with them and ultimately with us. All they need is the political will to do so and the public to support them.

We have a choice!

Inscribed on the wall of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is one of his quotes about education in a free society, "God who gave us life gave us liberty. Establish a law for educating the common people. This is the business of the state and on a general plan."

It's still a good idea.

Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, served on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch and on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards. He also has been deputy assistant secretary of labor. E-mail: [email protected].