The Utah Choice

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

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One of my favorite quotes by author Victor Hugo sums up the power of a good idea: “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” These words readily speak to the ideological battle waged over school choice in this country – clearly, a fierce and long-lasting fight. To those who support choice, though, it appears our time has finally come.

On February 12th, the state of Utah cemented its place in the annals of history when Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. signed the first-ever universal school choice bill into law. The Parent Choice in Education Act allows money to follow a student to a school of choice, with a publicly-funded yearly scholarship ranging from $500 to $3,000.

While the bill cleared the Utah House and Senate and garnered the governor’s signature in a matter of days, its passage is the culmination of years of grassroots labor to shift public opinion and create a political climate for change. This bill also follows on the heels of several less ambitious, more incremental legislative changes in the state that paved the way for universal choice. North Carolinians eager to see school choice in our own state would do well to heed the lessons learned in Utah.

Consider the groundwork laid by Utah reformers to achieve school choice. In November 2000, businessmen Doug Holmes and Jordan Clements founded the Utah Education Funding Project, dedicated to informing the public about the benefits of choice. Since that time, the organization has evolved into Parents for Choice in Education (PEC); while still committed to its original goal, PEC has since expanded its focus, including the formation of a political action committee that works to elect pro-school choice candidates in Utah.

Utah’s parental choice movement also got its start with private donations enabling lower income students to attend private school. North Carolina is already home to a similar program: Children’s Scholarship Fund of Charlotte provides privately-funded scholarships to low-income students to attend private or parochial school.

On the road to universal choice, Utah legislators passed a law permitting charter schools, deregulated public schools. Unlike in North Carolina, Utah charter schools operate under a State Charter School Board dedicated just to authorizing charters and focusing on the unique needs of these schools. In North Carolina, the State Board of Education oversees both traditional and charter schools.

Utah has a history of flexibility in public school assignment as well. The state allows for “intra-district” choice, allowing families to choose public schools within a district. Utah also mandates “inter-district” public school choice, giving students the option of attending a public school outside their district of residence. While North Carolina law permits these kinds of transfers, authority to make the final determination rests with local school board members. Most North Carolina families who choose a school outside their district must then pay the county supplement to the system.

Finally, in March 2005, Utah implemented a limited voucher program, the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship, providing as much as $6,042.50 for students with disabilities to attend any eligible private school. This program made great strides in fostering public acceptance of a statewide voucher program.

How can we make school choice a reality in North Carolina? For starters, we need to form a diverse coalition of committed supporters who are willing to work tirelessly to educate the public, ultimately fostering a political climate hospitable to choice. Fortunately, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), created in July 2005, is at the forefront of this movement. Please consider joining PEFNC and attending their rally, A Blueprint for Our Children’s Future, in Raleigh on March 6th. Don’t sit this one out – get involved and help write history. After all, if Utah is any indication, choice is on the march.

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.