On November 6, 2007, Utah voters will decide whether to move forward with a voucher program that will provide scholarships for qualifying children enrolling in eligible private schools, while at the same time allowing public school districts to "retain some per-student funding for scholarship students who transfer … "
By the time Utah voters go to the polls, they will have been bombarded with competing messages, the most opposition coming from the teachers union.
According to their Web site, Utah's teachers union has three primary objections to the voucher law: private schools lack the same accountability as public ones, Utahns should spend more money on public schools instead of "diverting" money to private ones, and the majority of Utahns won't benefit from the program since half of Utah's counties have no private schools anyway.
These arguments are easily slain. Private schools are, of course, accountable, often to a stricter standard than those employed by public schools. After all, if private schools aren't doing their jobs well, they lose students and all the revenues attached to them.
The other two arguments hide deeper meanings. In essence, they are saying that Utahns should focus money and attention only on public schools.
The reason the union would want this focus is obvious. Teachers unions hold significant power over the public system, but not the private one.
But I know that union representatives balk at such ignoble motivations and like to point instead to the value and importance of public schools in American life. When I was a school choice advocate in Vermont, these impassioned arguments "sugared out" (to use a Vermont term) into opinions like these: public schools are where we all learn to get along, public schools prevent the "Balkanization" of Americans, and private schools, with their lack of accountability (of course), could lead to fringe institutions promoting everything from witchcraft to Nazism.
Let me summarize these arguments with a quote from a time gone by: "[T]he American public school, non-partisan, non-sectarian, efficient, [and] democratic," is "for all the children of all the people." Or perhaps one might say that the Utah voucher battle is about "the ultimate perpetuation or destruction of free institutions, based upon the perpetuation or destruction of the public schools." Even if the Utah National Education Association president agrees with these statements, however, she would be wise to avoid using them. They originated with Ku Klux Klan leaders during another important education referendum 85 years ago in the state of Oregon.
On November 7, 1922, Oregonians who went to the polls were asked to decide the exact opposite of a voucher question — they were voting on whether or not children should be forced to go to public schools only. If passed, the Oregon School Law would fine parents or pack them off to jail should they send their kids to private schools.
The law was a manifestation of nativist anti-Catholic sentiments, promoted by the Ku Klux Klan and other zealous xenophobes who feared Catholic immigrants' influence on American life.
As part of that ugly referendum campaign, a booklet titled "The Old Cedar School" was circulated to persuade voters. This allegorical tale included the story of a farmer's son who converts to Catholicism and sends his children to the "Academy of St. Gregory's Holy Toe Nail," where they study "histomorphology, the Petrine Supremacy, Transubstantiation, and … the beatification of Saint Caviar." But not, I am relieved to report, witchcraft or Nazism.
The story eventually paints a picture of a Catholic bishop who actually burns down a public school. The message was clear — Catholics and their schools were not just threats to the public schools, but a mere matchstick away from destroying them entirely.
Catholic defenders felt compelled to point out the obvious — Catholic schools were absolutely American, English was the language spoken in the schools, and even their mottos were American: "For God and country." In other words, they were accountable.
Oregonians passed the law anyway by a vote of 115,506 to 103,685.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned it, however, on June 1, 1925, ruling that "the child is not the mere creature of the state," settling once and for all the question of whether or not private schools had a right to exist in America.
The Oregon law might seem like a quaint aberration in an otherwise tolerant society, unrelated to today's voucher battles. But in reality, it was the culmination of nearly a century of school law aimed at achieving the same nativist goals.
From the mid-1800s until the battle for the Oregon law, the very formation and growth of America's public school system was intertwined with an unsavory nativist movement that sought to use the newly-formed "common schools" to turn immigrants — mostly Catholics — into true Americans.
Unfortunately, the reformers' vision of what made a true American wasn't just learning American history and civics — something Catholic and other private schools taught already. To these reformers, being a "true" American meant being part of a nonsectarian hegemony. "Nonsectarian" at the time meant nondenominational Christianity, not "nonreligious." "Sectarian" was code for Catholic.
Several states went so far as to enshrine this principle in their constitutions, in fact, passing so-called Blaine Amendments that forbid the use of any public money for sectarian schools. Utah, by the way, has a Blaine Amendment.
If it weren't for nativist entanglement with education law that entrenched a system where public money could only go to certain "nonsectarian" K-12 schools, Utah might not have to be considering a voucher bill today. Perhaps the K-12 system would have looked more like our postsecondary one where public monies can be used at a variety of institutions.
Making education free and available to all children was a noble goal of school reformers of the 1800s. If it hadn't become entwined with the nativist sentiments of the time, we might have had a very different educational system — one that looks a lot like what Utahns are trying to craft with their voucher bill today, just one day shy of the 85th anniversary of another education referendum with the completely opposite goal.
Ms. Sternberg, the former head of a Vermont school choice organization, is an Edgar-nominated author of several teen mysteries. Her November book, also a teen mystery, is titled "The Case Against My Brother." It is set in 1922 Oregon against the backdrop of the campaign for the Oregon School Law.