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Nobelist lauds plan for school vouchers

System won’t harm public education, he tells conference

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Advocates for private-school-tuition tax credits brought out the big guns Friday at a conference that aired the perks of the education reform measure.

Milton Friedman, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for economic science, spoke at a packed luncheon for "The Future of Utah Education" legislative conference, presented by Education Excellence Utah, a pro-school choice and reform group.

There, he likened public education to an inefficient, "socialist enterprise" and "government monopoly" that brings low-quality performance at high costs.

"You in Utah may be on the cutting edge if you adopt a statewide voucher system," he said. "You will find you will have a superior education system. . . . The argument that this will somehow harm public education is a fake argument."

About 300 business representatives, state legislators and others attended the luncheon.

Legislative leaders were there along with former Gov. Norm Bangerter and GOP Congressmen Chris Cannon and Jim Hansen, as "co-hosts."

Still, House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, and Senate Majority Whip John Valentine, R-Orem, say that doesn't mean they back tax credits — just a discussion about them.

"I think we have to shake up our thinking in the public education arena," Stephens said. "I'm willing to look at all options that would be of benefit to our children."

Valentine reiterated Stephens' statements, but said he would be more willing to support a tuition tax credit if it is targeted at low-income families.

Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, is drafting legislation to give Utah parents a $2,100 tuition tax credit. The rest of the $4,200 the state spends per student would remain in the public school system, mostly in the district where the child lives.

Buttars says the measure would increase per-student spending in Utah, which is last in the nation despite a high tax burden. He also says it would open school choice to all families, rich or poor, and ease school crowding.

Rep. Tom Hatch, R-Panguitch and chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, plans to carry the bill in the House.

Rep. John Swallow, R-Sandy, carried a similar bill last session. The bill passed committee, but Swallow pulled it for further discussion.

Public education leaders, from school boards to the PTA, have lobbied against the concept, available in eight states including Arizona, as a raid on public school coffers.

Tax credit opponents say forcing only public schools to adhere to a school accountability system is unfair. They also doubt private schools would admit many special-education students or grow to accommodate more students.

"What I'm really concerned about is whether or not tuition tax credits would accomplish what Ed-Ex Utah says they will," said Jordan Board of Education President Ralph Haws, who attended the conference. "It's a well-funded, high-powered effort to market and promote tuition tax credits as a vehicle for saving the public education system in Utah. I personally don't think public education has to be saved."

But former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan believes tax credits, which allow dollars to flow where the child wants to learn, are critical to improving education.

"The goal is that any child has access to the school that is best for her or him," Keegan said at the conference. "That's the definition of public education, not who gets paid at the end of the day."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com