February 15, 2022
Last week, new legislation was introduced in the Utah House of Representatives to create the Hope Scholarship Program, which would extend new educational opportunities to students who need them through a flexible education spending program commonly known as education savings accounts. Some opponents immediately took a route likely to politicize the issue and polarize the public by comparing the Hope Scholarship program to the voucher law defeated via referendum in 2007.
But when you look at the evidence – including local public support for education choice policies, the broader educational environment, and policy differences in the legislation – 2022 is clearly not 2007. Students would be well served if the adults arguing over their future opportunities acted accordingly.
In 2007, Utah’s voucher law was defeated in a referendum vote by a margin of roughly 60%-40%. In 2022, polls of public support for legislation allowing parents to use tax dollars to send their student to a chosen public or private school say that 69% of Utahns support such legislation, compared with 27% who oppose it.
Of course, a public opinion poll is different than a vote of the people. However, considering that a vote of the people to gauge their support for the Hope Scholarship Program is not happening, public opinion polls are one of the most comparable gauges of public support that we have available. It is likely that future polling will offer more insight regarding public support for the Hope Scholarship Program.
But what seems clear regarding public opinion – given the dramatic differences in the referendum vote and current polling – is that 2022 is not 2007.
In 2007, public schools were a source of stability and predictability for families. Sending a child to public school meant that, between late summer and late spring, families knew exactly what to plan for in their work and family schedules.
The COVID-19 pandemic – more specifically, repeated school closures and episodes of forced remote learning over multiple school years – shattered that reality for families. In the words of AEI scholar Robert Pondiscio:
It is not an indictment of local schools (or at least not intended as one) to say that among their most salient features is predictability. The rhythms of the school year largely dictate family life. Your kids have somewhere they’re supposed to be Monday through Friday for 40 weeks of the year. Working families are accustomed to making plans for their children well in advance for summer vacation and winter recesses — not the night before, when schools close due to staffing issues or when your child is quarantined weeks at a time out of an abundance of caution to stop the spread of COVID. The less reliably schools are open and accommodating, the more likely parents are to make other plans. Two years and counting of uncertainty and improvisation is, frankly, too much to ask of parents. It’s plenty of time for new habits to form and to stick.
In 2022, public schools are simply one of many sources of uncertainty. Perhaps your student’s school will be open next week or next month, but perhaps it will be in a remote learning period due to the spread of COVID-19 in the school. Perhaps your student’s teacher will be there tomorrow to help educate them, or perhaps they won’t due to COVID-19.
The current pandemic has disrupted many things in daily life for millions of Utahns. Public schools are one of them. When it comes to the broader educational environment, 2022 is not 2007.
In 2007, Utahns voted on a new law that would have established a voucher program. Vouchers do one thing: give families public funds to help cover tuition at a private school. That’s it.
In 2022, the Hope Scholarship Program legislation would create an education savings account program that families could apply for and use to help pay for things like books to help a student read and write, an online math course, or a subscription to at-home science kits, in addition to private school tuition. Technically, the legislation would expand education savings accounts, since Utah already has the Special Needs Opportunity Scholarship Program, which offers scholarships to special needs students for flexible uses beyond tuition at a private school.
While there are some similarities between the two programs, the voucher program of 2007 and the Hope Scholarship program of 2022 cannot accurately be described as the same policy. Both programs offer students whose needs are not being met in a traditional public school setting some additional educational opportunities that may better fit their unique learning needs.
But the two programs are designed differently and operate differently, with different groups of students, families and outcomes in mind. When it comes to the education policy in question, 2022 is not 2007.
Whatever your position on the proposed Hope Scholarship Program, we should be able to recognize the differences between 2022 and 2007 and act accordingly. We are not fated to replicate the polarized, politicized and simplistic parents vs. teachers vouchers debate of 2007. We can prioritize principles, emphasize evidence, and make the debate about how best to meet the learning needs of each child in a diverse and diversifying body of students.
Sutherland Institute supports the policies in the Hope Scholarship Program because they can have the effect of depoliticizing and depolarizing public school classrooms. When the average concerned parent can use a Hope Scholarship to act on concerns about their child’s learning experience, those with the greatest concerns will use the scholarship instead of being forced to vent that frustration at teachers or in school board meetings because they have no other option. This will leave teachers with classrooms of students whose parents are, on average, more supportive and less frustrated with what is happening in their child’s school. In other words, the Hope Scholarship Program empowers parents and respects teachers through a commonsense solution – and that is why Sutherland supports it.
But in the debate over the Hope Scholarship legislation, rising above politicization and polarization will require the efforts of supporters and opponents alike. It requires the recognition that politicizing an education policy issue that directly impacts the welfare of children for short-term political gain harms all forms of publicly funded education. Because using public schools or struggling students as a political football, especially when both sides are doing it for their own agendas, erodes public trust in the institution of public education.
In a society that relies on an educated citizenry for its continued prosperity and well-being, that erosion of trust is good for no one.
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