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Parents have moral right, duty to direct children's education

Jordan Clements
Jordan Clements

Editor's note: In an effort to cut through the emotional rhetoric surrounding the voucher issue, we solicited a leader on each side to submit their best arguments, then allowed them to rebut one another. Their arguments — and rebuttals — appear in the related links here.

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Approximately eight years ago, my growing frustration over my inability to meaningfully influence the formal education of my five school-age daughters impelled me to enter the political arena for the first and only time. Relying upon the school vouchers brainchild of Milton Friedman, I concluded that school choice would improve the quality of education for all children in Utah.

Here are my reasons for advocating parental choice in education:

1. Every parent, regardless of income level, has the moral right to choose the best education for his child. When a child is failing in school, whether academically, morally or developmentally, that child's parents must have the ability to rescue that child by selecting other educational options.

2. Vouchers will increase per-pupil spending and reduce class size in public schools.

3. Vouchers will improve public education as public schools respond to the innovation and competition from independent schools.

Parental choice as a moral imperative

Shortly after I embarked upon my quest to give parents choices, I discovered thousands of desperate lower- and middle-income parents whose children were failing to learn in traditional educational settings. The schools they attended were often on the west side of our communities or in inner cities. Their test scores typically range in the 10th to 20th percentile, while students in more affluent areas are in the 70th to 80th percentile.

Legions of desperate and hopeless parents see their children's lives slipping away. In response to this need, we started a scholarship foundation called Children First Utah. We provide scholarships to low-income families (average income of less than $25,000) to pay half the tuition cost of a private school. The average tuition of private schools selected by Children First Utah parents is well under $4,000 per year. Children First Utah functions effectively as a private voucher program.

Alexi Johnson is a black student who attended Ogden public schools through the fifth grade. In her neighborhood school, her grades sank consistently to D's and F's. Alexi's single mom, Priscilla, became desperate. Then she learned of the Children First Utah scholarships. While Priscilla had to pay, at great personal sacrifice, half the cost of tuition for Alexi to attend Layton Christian Academy, she was willing to make the sacrifice to rescue her daughter from a life of failure and despair.

Today Alexi is in the 11th grade and has a 3.9 GPA. She was recently elected junior class vice president. Her goal is to be a 4.0 student and to become a physician. For Priscilla there is no doubt that the scholarship saved her daughter's life.

There are thousands of Alexis in this state without the happy ending. There are thousands of Priscillas who don't know how to rescue their children from a lifetime of hopelessness. Should we really tell the Priscillas of this state that they must send their child to a local school selected by some nameless administrator? Should Priscilla, who has given her life for her daughter, really sit by and watch as her daughter sinks into permanent underclass status and a lifetime of despair?

It's morally right that every parent have the ability to do whatever is necessary in directing his or her child's education to provide a future for that child.

Increase per-pupil spending; decrease class sizes

The math underlying voucher scholarships is quite simple. Unfortunately, some of my friends in public education struggle with basic voucher arithmetic.

Taxpayers currently spend more than $7,500 per child in public education. The average voucher will cost taxpayers $2,000. For every parent who uses a voucher, the cost to taxpayers of educating that parent's child will drop from $7,500 to $2,000. That $5,500 savings is available to be reallocated among the remaining students. So if two children from one classroom decide to use vouchers, $11,000 will be invested back for those children who remain. Vouchers decrease class size and increase per pupil spending.

Competition improves education for all

Recently a friend told me a story about her daughter's experience in the ALPS program in the Jordan School District. ALPS is a program for accelerated and gifted children. This past year, a new director of the program instituted numerous changes to the program that upset many parents. At a recent school board meeting, nearly 100 parents showed up to express their displeasure. During the course of the debate, one of the Jordan school board members acknowledged that the district was under attack from charter schools and vouchers and said that the board needed to be responsive to such involved and concerned parents. To the relief of these concerned parents, the board halted the changes and instituted a parental advisory council to work through opportunities for gifted and accelerated education in the district.

My friend asks rhetorically: "Would the school board have ever responded to the parents' concerns if the parents didn't have other options?" For the first time public education administrators and school board members are beginning to see parents and their children as customers. And the reason they do so is because of the growing number of charter schools and private schools.

A recent study confirms the value of competition: "Today, about three-quarters of all Dutch children attend private schools with financial assistance from the government. Has this hurt the nation's academic performance? Dutch high school seniors and recent graduates score first in the world in mathematics, second in science and fourth in literacy. By comparison, American seniors and recent graduates score 19th in math, 16th in science, and 12th in literacy" (

Parents have a moral right and duty to direct their children's education. Voucher math is simple: Vouchers will increase per-pupil spending and decrease class size. And history has demonstrated, without exception, that competition will improve the quality of education for all.

Jordan Clements is the managing partner of Peterson Partners, an investment firm, and founder of Children First Utah.