Education Empowerment

Who Uses School Choice Programs?

In his recent op-ed published in the Salt Lake Tribune, Alexander Hyres claims education choice programs won’t benefit low-income families in Utah. This couldn’t be further from the truth. His premise ignores the reality that well-to-do families already have a choice in education, either by living in the boundaries of high-performing public schools or by paying for private school tuition. The Utah Fits All Scholarship prioritizes students in low-income families, providing those families the opportunity to find a school that better fits the student. 

Across the United States, the families most likely to use education choice programs have low incomes or children with special needs. Families from these two demographics have the most compelling reasons to switch from traditional models to alternatives.

Low-income and minority families are more likely to live in communities with high dropout rates and low graduation rates. In Utah, one in five students from low-income and minority families drop out of school. These schools typically have more bullying problems where students feel less safe. Schools like Roots High School in West Valley City are specially designed for students on the verge of dropping out. They even describe themselves as last chance schools.

As a principal, I was often frustrated by the special education process. This is a very slow process. I routinely had conversations with parents and teachers, who knew within the first few weeks of school that the student needed more help. A parent would talk with the classroom teacher and me about the problem. We would then begin the process, which consisted of gathering data for a minimum of six weeks, submitting a referral to the special education department, and waiting up to forty-five school days for testing to take place and results to be analyzed. By the time the process is complete, half of the school year is over before extra help can legally be provided.

Dr. Hyres made another point in regards to the quality of the education provided to these students through private schools. Yes, if we look at test scores or national norm referenced assessments, private schools tend to do better. Those facts make a good point about the quality of the education and opportunities for low-income families. The UT-Fits Scholarship provides the means for these families to take advantage of the opportunities. 

The real question is who gets to decide what a quality education is. As a parent of five children, I can tell you that a quality education looks different for each of my children. My wife completely homeschools our youngest two children, we send two of them to a local microschool, and our high schooler does a combination of homeschool, microschool and the local applied technology center. Each solution fits the needs of each of our children. And next year we will reevaluate our children’s needs and make changes, if needed.

The same is true for all parents. Each child is unique, and a quality education will look different for each of them. The question is who gets to decide. In Utah, the law supports this fundamental right of parents. “A student’s parent is the primary person responsible for the education of the student, and the state is in a secondary and supportive role to the parent.”