The day after Utah revealed one-third of schools are failing to pass muster under No Child Left Behind, the U.S. undersecretary of education came to town to stump for more choices in education, be it through public, charter schools or tax credits for private school tuition.

"This is a nation that was built on the public system, and we have been successful. But public education isn't about a system of districts — it's a concept, and we need to rethink that concept," Undersecretary Eugene Hickok told about 100 legislators and educators attending a school choice presentation Tuesday. "Choice is about improving education for everyone."

Hickok was the keynote speaker at "Lessons Learned: Parental Choice in Utah and Across the Nation," a presentation hosted by Education Excellence Utah.

Ed-Ex Utah has lobbied for tuition tax credits, which failed in the Utah Legislature the past three consecutive years.

Another bill is expected to surface in the 2004 Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem.

Hickok's opinion on tuition tax credits falls in line with President Bush. But it goes against the feelings of education officials in Utah.

School leaders here say tuition tax credits would raid coffers for Utah schools, which are primarily funded by the state income tax. They also say private schools would receive public funds but not be held to the same accountability standards as public schools.

But Hickok believes parents have a fundamental right in choosing education for their children.

"I have heard people say that (charter schools and tuition tax credits) will take money away from the district and private schools," Hickok said. "My response is, it's not the districts' money, it's the taxpayers' money."

And now that Utah's No Child Left Behind reports cards are out, revealing whether each school in the state made "adequate yearly progress" toward state goals in reading and math, supporters of parental choice in education feel parents may be looking at other options in education rather than the public school system.

"We hear a constant beat from our public school system that all we need to fix the system is more money," said Doug Holmes, Ed Ex Utah chairman. "We are not trying to destroy public education — in the end the vast majority of Utah students will be educated in the public system," said Holmes. "The best way to make those schools excellent is for them to experience the pressure of parental choice with parents having option."


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