I'm enjoying Megan McArdle's blogging from Vietnam, but I'm curious to get her take on the fairly resounding defeat of the voucher referendum in Utah. Given her frequent complaint that voucher opponents are affluent suburban liberals, I'm really wondering how the voucher plan failed in every one of Utah's 29 counties, some of which are presumably neither affluent nor suburban, and by nearly two-thirds in the state as a whole, which I've never thought liberal.
UPDATE to provide some context: I think meaningful oversight and some degree of school choice are vital to ensuring decent public education in urban areas. I love what's happening in New York City under the leadership of Chancellor Joel Klein, despite some missteps like the letter-grading system*; the public charters and small schools for the most part seem to be flourishing, and I've been working on a pro bono project for Federalist Society students to help these organizations navigate legal issues.
However, I've never gotten a good answer from voucher proponents about what their proposals have to offer to people in small towns and rural areas. The first person I asked about this said something vague about tele-education; the second (from the Institute for Justice) referred to Maine towns that historically, instead of maintaining public schools, have paid per-student tuition money to the out-of-town schools of parents' choice, whether public or private. Unfortunately, neither of these sounds like a fix for my family's educational situation: living in a town with one mediocre public high school, no private schooling past 6th grade*, no other public high school for 20 miles and no private high school for 100 miles. The idea of setting the public high school kids I knew in a tele-education room with no teacher physically present is absurd; even my honors Chem II classmates would get rowdy and stop doing their work if the teacher was bad at keeping order.
Perhaps if parents were given public funds that could go to the private secondary schools of their choice, such schools would arise, but I rather doubt it. There were multiple public and private elementary schools (I went to an Episcopalian one, but there also was a Baptist academy), but after 5th grade, everyone went to the same public middle school, junior high and high school. For whatever reason, there did not seem to be enough interest to support a private option, and having more than one public school creates two problems: splitting your football talent across multiple teams, and increasing the probability of de facto racial segregation by housing pattern. To see what happens when a deep East Texas town has two high schools, consider the predominately black John Tyler and predominately white Robert E. Lee high schools of Tyler, the largest town in the area.
While vouchers proponents assume that Utah voters were duped by the National Education Association, I wonder if the majority of them live in towns rather more like my hometown than like McArdle's, and thus had the same question: What are vouchers going to do for me?
* Speaking of grading schools, Ohio has given over half of the state's charters a D or F (57% of charters got those grades, compared to 43% of traditional public schools in big cities) and the Democratic attorney general is suing to shut some of the failures down, against the protests of the Republican-controlled legislature. With all due respect to AG Marc Dann and his staff, this seems both legally and politically misguided. Legally, the legislature probably has to authorize the AG to close schools; politically, this will be a great issue for the next election. Republican inaction on failing charters + donations to those Republicans from the largest commercial operator of charters, David Brennan = sweet campaign ads.
** A Christian Academy affiliated with a Nazarene church arose a few years ago, which goes up to 8th grade.