Author: Professor Warner Woodworth, BYU
As a lifelong church member and professor at BYU’s Marriott School, I’ve observed our political leaders for many years. As a longtime Utah resident, I grew up attending Salt Lake City schools. The high quality of my teachers motivated me to attend college at both BYU and the U. From there I went on to receive two masters degrees, and then earn a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, and have loved university teaching all my life.
My wife and I have sent our ten children to schools in Provo schools, and now as grandchildren come along I find it necessary to address the question of vouchers. In past months I attempted to ignore the issue, anticipating that it was simply another bad idea whose time had come, and would soon also go. But because of the political clout from in and out-of-state coalitions, along with Big Money, such is apparently not the case.
We have treasured the wonderful and dedicated public school teachers both we and our kids have had. We always felt a commitment to support the schools, volunteering at times and encouraging public officials to provide more fair and ethical levels of compensation for those we trust with our young. When inane decisions were made over the years to cut taxes, further eroding the capacity of those in the teaching profession to continue in their service to build Utah’s future, we were deeply saddened. The dollars sent back to us as refunds were immediately forwarded on to our children’s schools to help buy basics like chalk and erasers. No frills–just the educational necessities Utah politicians did not think necessary.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen many teachers move to other states to teach where education and the future of the next generation was more valued than in Utah. While officials mouthed the importance of the family, their actions suggested otherwise. I recall some of our community teachers being forced to change careers in order to support their families. One promising young Mormon educator quit his job in our neighborhood school and joined the military because even that career paid better and required fewer hours.
For a long, long time a small group of Mormon-professing political extremists in the Utah legislature have attempted to inflict a voucher program upon the public. Their numbers grew during the machinations of the 2007 legislative session from the supposedly independent branches of our government which colluded to foist on us a supposedly Republican and conservative agenda. While the pretext for all this has been parental choice, I’m now convinced that this is primarily another tactic of the country’s neo-cons to dismantle public sector services that have made us the envy of the world. The Utah movement continues trends started by Newt Gingrich & Co. to privatize government, outsource the military, dismantle social security, hire actors to play scientists and reporters, and defund hundreds of federal and now state programs that have served us well over many decades. Presently, schools are simply the latest targets to be caught in the crosshairs of contemporary extremist guns out to hunt down and kill any quality-of-life institutions that may still be breathing. Clearly, some of them apparently studied at the Dick Cheney School of Shooting Range Safety!
In spite of rhetoric about free agency, the need to put God in the classroom more, the importance of educational choice and independence, voucher proponents actually anticipate government handouts. Their strategy is largely being advocated by people who apparently prefer government subsidies to hard work and market forces. Our lawmakers strive all they can to ignore the ‘least of these.’ They try to get beggars off the streets, cut funds for single mothers and so on. These folks are against subsidizing the poor, and they continually vote against legislation that would help the most vulnerable in our state. On the other hand, they obviously believe in welfare for the upper middle class and the rich, the ones already able to send their children to private schools. As a registered Republican, this hypocrisy galls me to no end.
The advocates of the voucher dream complain that big, outside unions are funding this battle. (Translation: Trade unions are the “secret combinations” warned about in the Book of Mormon.) They employ red herring terms such as liberal, labor, and special interests. But the real story is just the opposite. It’s rich CEOs who moved here from California (i.e. Overstock.com) who have spent millions for their voucher campaign, as well as the right-wing heirs of Amway and Wal-Mart fortunes. It’s libertarian outfits like the Sutherland Institute which has been largely funded by big donors who got their millions from outside the state. Several of these were non-LDS right-wing extremists who were first attracted to what they saw as a rare brand of ultra-conservatism, and admit they later joined the church for political reasons, as well as gospel truths. Some of these individuals now claim Utah as their residence, but they don’t like moderate governors like Jon Huntsman.
In Sutherland’s case, proponents even attempted to give credibility to their cause by linking it to the region’s Mormon heritage and pioneer values. For anyone with an inkling of understanding about LDS and Utah history, it was sheer fantasy, one of the most ludicrous claims ever promulgated about the state’s politics. Then again, perhaps it was no worse than the infantile Oreo cookies ad shown on television featuring a married couple who were always viewed as Mormondom’s pre-eminent Yuppie couple. No longer young, they are definitely urban professionals, and have achieved the fame and status they sought among the wealthy of the Wasatch Front.
Incredibly to me, this group supports a proposed law that would give at least $500 to those already having plenty of money to send their kids to private institutions, if they so desire. These folks want to be free to teach Ezra Taft Benson’s ultra-right ideology and school subject matter, along with the gospel of John Birch, and the evils of centrist and rational electoral behavior. With regard to Referendum 1’s economics, it has no upper-income limit regarding how much such people earn, so the wealthiest Utahns can receive public assistance, otherwise known as welfare. During the first year, this program will cost Utah taxpayers over $5 million, and when it is fully implemented 13 years later, the financial burden will skyrocket to $71 million! This seems to be fiscal insanity, not unlike the recent era of Whitehouse tax cuts for America, even as our nation sinks deeper into the abyss of massive federal debt.
In Referendum 1 there is no concern about so-called “schools” qualifying for support as long as they have 40 students. Even more disconcerting is the fact that the “teachers” in this plan only need some type of “expertise,” or other. Apparently the denigrated joke about schools offering courses in Underwater Basket Weaving will finally become a reality in our state. Such questionable skills may potentially qualify a teaching applicant as an instructor in the new voucher institutions. (They should not be referred to as “schools.”) Such individuals do not need to be professionals, nor will they have to be certified. Based on the recent growth of private schools in upper class Utah neighborhoods, the educational content is likely to skip math and science in favor of Cleon Skousen’s treatise from his Freeman Institute materials.
If the law passes, we will see a plethora of new schools. I can already envision the celebrated names of these emerging institutions: The Orrin Hatch Academy of Critical Thinking, the Sean Hannity Institute of Media Accuracy, the George W. Bush School of Strategic International Development, etc. Educational content for use in such schools could include public policy successes like the town of La Verkin in southern Utah which in 2001 passed a law making it a United Nations-Free Zone. Or they could teach a case on how Howard Ruff led the fight in New York to block Hillary Clinton’s campaign to become a senator from that state. Other examples might be the career success of Vance Smith, a Mormon who recently was selected as the new president of the John Birch Society; the insidious Second Amendment tactic during the year 2000 in the little town of Virgin, Utah where the city council, caught up in the frenzy of Y2K millennialism, established a policy that all families must have a gun and ammunition in their homes. Are these the values and teachings we want the next generation of Zion’s children to believe and practice?
Defunding public schools in the epicenter of Mormonism under the guise that it will better Wasatch Front quality of life is a reckless hope based on sheer fantasy. It’s not good for most families, and especially not desirable for children. At Tuesday’s election please join in cutting off the legs of this monster before it consumes the legacy that proclaims: “The glory of God is intelligence.”