Mr. Doug Holmes
Chairman of the Board
Parents for Choice in Education
Doug Holmes - Employment- Chairman, Parents for Choice in Education; former chief financial officer, former executive vice president of strategy, corporate development and technology, MediaOne Group, a fortune 100 company that was sold to AT&T (1999); former strategy consultant, Booz Allen and Hamilton. Special Mention- Served on several company boards, Time Warner Entertainment, IPIX, InfoGear and Time Warner Telecom; served on several volunteer boards. Education- B.S., M.B.A., Brigham Young University. Personal- Father of six; married to Erin.
Lessons Learned from Utah's School Choice Battle
What a privilege to be with you all today. I appreciate this opportunity a lot.
I have to tell you that when my wife looked at the program last night, she read Honorable, Reverend, President, Governor, and she said, "What on earth are you doing speaking at this program?" Her job is to always keep me humble. She then suggested I should have been listed as peasant on the program, by comparison, and then when she noted I was following Reverend Falwell, she kindly prayed for me last night. So I am grateful for her both keeping me humble and for her support.
I hope to share with you, I guess, stories from the trenches in the fight for school choice. As was indicated in the introduction, I spent the last seven years, much of the last seven years of my life, working on education reforms around school choice in Utah and have fought that battle and learned much. I was very much a novice in the political world when I took this one, and so I hope to share with you some practical lessons and experience from that.
Before I do, though, I want to first share with you why I have been so passionate about this. I think, like many of you, I believe that a well‑educated populous is the roots of our liberty, our morality, our civility, and our prosperity as a society.
As Thomas Jefferson said ‑‑ if I can get the first slide ‑‑ and many of you remember, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be," and as James Wilson eloquently put it, "Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love unless they first become the objects of our knowledge."
Unfortunately, our public K‑12 education system is badly broken. It has been for many years, and it is creating threats to our country, perhaps less visible, but more significant than terrorism or any number of other seemingly more pressing and current issues.
Almost 25 years ago, a pivotal report on our education system, "A Nation at Risk," stated that if a foreign power had done to us what our education system had done to us, we would consider it an act of war. Unfortunately, in the 25 years since that report and after throwing billions upon billions of dollars at the problem, things have only gotten worse, and the socialistic, education, industrial complex is only more entrenched.
Consider the following. Only two‑thirds of American students are graduating from high school, and less than 50 percent of blacks and Hispanics. American students perform well in early grades relative to international peers, but by the time our system is done with them, they finish in the bottom quartile.
Over 70 percent of eighth graders are not reading at proficient levels. So, while the system is performing really in appalling ways on academic standards, perhaps certainly as concerning is their poor performance in terms of teaching civil and principal values that this nation was founded on.
Who do you think said the following? "The education system is entitled to look upon all parents as having given their children as hostages to our cause." Stalin? Hitler? No. It was Horace Mann, the modern founder of our modern education system.
His followers went on to advocate even more. They advocated for "the establishment of a system which shall place under a control, independent of and superior to parental authority, the education of children."
The left has an agenda here, and they continue to perpetuate it through our schools as they advocated more than 100 years ago. We are more interested in teaching multi‑culturalism than we are principles of liberty. We have to change this.
There are many people in this room who could do a better job in analyzing the state of our current education system than I. My purpose today is really to take us out of the theory of education reform and specifically school choice that was introduced more than 50 years ago by Milton Friedman, and into the trenches of how we made progress on this in Utah specifically.
When I took up this battle seven years ago, I was naive enough to think ‑‑ I had lived across the country from Seattle to Boston, a lot of time in Denver, some time in Texas, and came here and was passionate about this issue and said, "This ought to be easy in Utah. We ought to be able to get this done. We could provide a model to the nation that shows, in fact, that all teachers and families don't get cancer when you let parents choose what education is best for their children," and seven years later, I have many bruises and scrapes finding out how naive indeed I was when you are going after an entrenched establishment like the education establishment.
So let's take you on a little journey here, if we can, through Utah. If you want to change that slide.
These are pieces of legislation that passed in February, late February of this year, we passed what The Wall Street Journal described as "somewhere Milton is smiling." Milton Friedman had died in November of '06. We passed this in February of '07. We had great desire to get it done before he died, but it was a suiting tribute to him and his efforts for liberty over many, many, many years.
The Heritage Foundation wrote, "Utah's revolutionary new school voucher program, Utah's new program scheduled to begin in the fall of '07 will be by far the most expansive school choice program in the nation."
Let me tell you now the story about how we got there. First, let me tell you a little bit about some unique things in Utah. We are the reddest state in the country, at least in six out of the last eight Presidential elections we have been. Republicans dominate voter registration, 4 to 1. Over 73 percent of both houses are Republican, part of what made me think this would be a fairly easy task in the State.
We have a part‑time legislature. We have a single 45‑day session that begins in the middle of January. We have the lowest per‑pupil funding and the largest class sizes in the country. That is really driven by demographic factors where we have large family sizes, the highest dependency ratio in the country; that is, children in school age relative to wage‑earning adults. We also have a very low private school enrollment in the State, about 10 percent less than the national average. So we have lots of kids in the denominator when you do per‑pupil funding. We actually have a fairly high tax base and put a high percentage of our effort towards educating them. We simply have a lot of children that creates those factors.
Education performance, despite having very good demographics ‑‑ low poverty levels, low single‑parent families, low children born out of wedlock. We actually perform very marginally on national comparisons, NAP tests, et cetera. So we perform slightly below average there. We have a very strong family culture in the State, which again I thought would help drive a program that empowers parents to choose the education of their children. Those brief facts about Utah will help give you some context then for the dynamics that happen the next seven years.
If you will change that slide. So, in 2000, a quick road map of how this journey went in Utah. We started tax credit discussions in the legislature, and Parents for Choice in Education, a 501(c)(3) educational foundation, was organized, and also Children First Utah, a demonstration project that was providing privately funded scholarships to low‑income families that we thought would help pave the way and demonstrate the effectiveness of a choice program.
In 2001, a tax credit bill passed a House subcommittee. It died on the floor, but also that year, Paycheck Protection Act passed both houses and became law, but was immediately challenged in the courts.
The following year, the tax credit bill was introduced in the Senate and did not go anywhere, and we organized a State PAC. One of the things that became very clear as this battle went forward was ideas alone would not win it. You had to show political force and clout and become very active in the political process, which in Utah had been dominated almost exclusively in previous years by the teachers union.
In 2003, the tax credit bill passed the Senate, but died in the House, and the Paycheck Protection bill that had been challenged in the courts when it had passed in 2001 was upheld by the courts and implemented, and union political donations dropped by over 90 percent. That was a significant factor in winning this battle. You had to cut off the money supply to the unions. You will see that that was only partially successful, as in subsequent battles the national unions stepped in to supplement the local unions' coffers. Next slide.
In 2004, with, again, pushing a tax credit bill, we were successful in passing a special needs scholarship program which allowed vouchers for special needs children. Unfortunately, it was vetoed by an interim governor, Governor Olene Walker. Later that year, Parents for Choice in Education PAC helped defeat Governor Walker at convention really based on that veto.
We also that year were successful at significantly expanding the charter school law in the State. So we ended up with ‑‑ now we have over 30,000 kids in charter schools, moved it to multiple chartering authorities where previously the local school boards were the only ones that could grant charters. Not shockingly, not many were granted, but after we set up a separate board to do the chartering, we have had a number open up, and the charter school movement is now flourishing.
In 2005, the special needs voucher bill, it was again brought to the floor, passed both houses, and this time, it was signed by Governor John Huntsman, who you will hear from later. The tuition tax credit bill came to the floor of the House that same year and was defeated by four votes.
Next one, 2006. The universal voucher bill passes a House committee, but does not come to the floor for a vote. The Speaker of the House didn't feel like they had the votes, but we did pass a failing student voucher bill, so that students that had failed the high school graduation test requirements could, in fact, get a voucher to help tutor them and to, in fact, pass that test, and that passed the House and the Senate and was signed into law.
We, in that following year, made the most significant investments we had to date in our PAC and election activities. While we didn't significantly change the vote count, we made a statement that was not to be forgotten by the legislature and, in particular, solidified House and Senate leadership to support our cause, and in 2007, we passed the universal voucher bill, and it was signed by Governor Huntsman. As you saw from The Heritage Foundation description, it’s the most comprehensive voucher bill in the country.
Let me tell you just briefly what that bill looks like. It’s pretty straightforward ‑‑ and I would not come close to saying that it was ideal. If I could be king for a day, it would look quite different, but in the reality of what can be practically achieved, it represented a very significant step forward, and unfortunately, in this movement, too often we find the perfect being the enemy of the possible, and so we took as much as we could get and think it's a very sound foundation to build upon.
So what makes it most expansive is essentially all public school students are eligible for a voucher. All the other choice programs across the country are restricted to fairly limited population groups, particularly low‑income families or severely failing school situations. In this case, all public school students are eligible, and then new kindergarten students coming into the program, 100 percent are eligible. So, over 12 years, you have 100 percent of Utah children being eligible for a voucher.
The voucher is progressively scaled based on income levels, so that a low‑income family receives as much as $3,000. I might add that private school, K through 8, private school tuition in this State is a little under $4,000. So this goes a very long way in getting low‑income families access to private schools. It then scales down so that at the bottom end of the scale, which includes all families, they are eligible for a $500 voucher.
The accountability provision, consistent with our strong philosophy and theory, requires essentially an informed consumer, so that parents are empowered with information to make good choices. Private schools accepting vouchers have to administer each year a nationally norm‑referenced test and share the results of that test with parents, so they can make a judgment on how the school is doing and how they are educating. It has to share the teaching credentials of the teachers teaching their students. The teachers don't have to be accredited in any way, but the parent has to know what the teaching credentials of those teachers are and accept that.
They have to share the accreditation status of the school with the parents and the teachers, and the parents be aware of that, and finally, they have to go through some financial solvency test with the State to ensure that the school will be financially solvent. So, really, the administrative end, regulatory burden put on the private schools is minimal.
Okay. So what lessons were learned as a result of this battle, and what is ahead for us? The first lesson is persistence is a must. As I indicated to you earlier, I naively thought this was going to be a two‑ or three‑year exercise, and we are not done yet, as you will see in a moment, and the reality is it never ends. Until some significant cracks in the dike are created, this battle will be an ongoing battle.
It takes more than ideas and research. The brilliance of Milton Friedman's thought captured in "Free to Choose" and many other forums and researched and advanced by many think tanks in the country has not been enough to make this a reality after 50 years. It takes political clout in a very serious way. We outspent after many, many years of being dramatically outspent by the teachers union, in the last general election races in Utah ‑‑ we outspent them by more than 2 to 1. We really, as I mentioned to you, solidified the way the bill was finally passed as a result of very strongly committed leadership in the House of Representatives, and the Speaker of the House, particularly Greg Curtis, brought his colleagues together and said, "We need to do this, and we need to do it now," and brought the leadership to it to make it happen.
The threat of real choice makes other positive reforms easier to achieve. You need to take what you can get. So the fact that we were out advocating aggressively broad school choice programs made it much more easy for us to get charter school reform through, to get other limited voucher programs through, the special needs voucher I mentioned to you, the failing student voucher that I mentioned to you. The threat of a major choice program out there requires the education establishment to focus their efforts on that, and they can't fight multi‑front battles effectively because they will use all their resources to avoid broad choice. So it has provided very effective cover to get other educational reforms advanced in the State.
We are very concerned with the current threat, quite frankly, on the program because we know from intelligence we have received from the other side, they are going to turn their sights aggressively on the charter movement if, in fact, we fail here.
Messages need to be simple and value‑oriented. In Utah, we have this challenge, as I mentioned to you, of low per‑pupil funding, and we have 160,000 new kids slated to come into the system in the next 10 years. It is going to create a huge tax burden on the system.
We have tried to advance and use an argument that says, wait, all a voucher is, is a parent volunteering to raise their hand and say, "Hey, instead of you giving me $7,500 a year, give me $2,000, which is what is estimated as the average voucher, and I will leave. You can keep the $5,500 difference, invest it in the classroom, what you are doing now, and this is a huge win. It is a win for taxpayers. It is a win for the public education system. It is a win for parents." As simple as that argument is and as simple as you can nod your heads, it has not been a powerful moving argument in this battle. You have to talk to values. You have to talk to parents who are trapped in a failing system and have no other way out of it.
You have to talk to parents about unions who are more interested in representing their union members and advancing social agendas than they are in their children.
I apologize, but you can sense I have some passion for this.
Next, it is important that we have very clear policy objectives. You can easily accept policies that compromise long‑term objectives and reform. That needs to happen, but at the same time, you need to make tradeoffs and adjustments to the policy as you move forward. So, in the realities of a political world, we need to understand the principles on which the policy is founded and based and make sure we don't compromise those things that are critical to the policy.
And finally, never underestimate the establishment. Next slide.
After passing the legislation, after seven long years, we were celebrating for approximately one week as we started a process to implement and advertise the program and get as many people enrolled in it as we could, knowing that the best offense would be a very broad enrollment in the program. Well, as soon as legally possible, a referendum was filed by the education establishment which collected adequate signatures to put the measure on the ballot this November. So the law was stayed as a result of their efforts, and we now have a public vote on the measure on November 6th.
This has become a standard playbook now for the education establishment. They used it in the State of Washington earlier this year against a charter school law in that State, and unfortunately, the education establishment knows what our founders know well and discoursed in Federalist 10 when they talked about the evils of direct democracy, and unfortunately, few in our society today don't appreciate the fact that we don't live in a democracy for very specific reasons. Democracies are fairly unstable; that is, direct democracies as opposed to republics. So they have taken that and are now using it.
Their attacks on the program in the public are very emotional. They are very latent with misinformation, and they are essentially following a strategy of fear, uncertainty, and doubt to get the populous to resist changes to a status quo, no matter how bad that status quo is.
They received $3 million from the NEA to make this attack. The NEA recognizes this is a meaningful crack in the dike, and if it is successful here and can be successful, it represents a trend that they are anxious to prevent.
We are slightly behind. We are actually more than slightly behind in the polls. We are about 15 points behind in the polls right now, but we are also very confident that, in fact, we can win. This is an off‑year election. We have, as I mentioned earlier ‑‑ normally, on a ballot measure initiative, you might start political battle four weeks before. The union started buying 1,000 gross rating points, and really the only one media market in the State. Four weeks out, they are trying to bury the issue early and strong. Our polling shows that actually their very intensive media campaign is not having much of an impact.
We believe, in fact, that the situation in Utah is unique and that we can win this. We are taking a very values‑oriented campaign to the voters. We are helping communicate to them that this has been given them as a right now, that parents have a right to choose the best education for their children, and these East Coast liberal unions who also oppose everything from merit pay for teachers to not allowing you to fire bad teachers and are supported by MoveOn.org and Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy are trying to take this right away from you. That message is resonating with Utah voters, and they are rallying to the cause.
We are also using an extensive network of grass roots mobilization through friends and family networks and through traditional voter ID and Get Out the Vote techniques that we, in fact, believe will mobilize the citizens of Utah to rise up and fight this and win the election in November.
We do have, who you will hear from shortly this afternoon or in a few minutes really, a very popular governor, approval ratings highest in the country, about 88 percent, who is supportive of the program and is behind it, and despite being outspent by our opponents, we have many generous donors who are stepping up and helping us in this battle.
So we are optimistic about where it can go from here. On the last slide, I have a quote that you have undoubtedly heard before. It has provided inspiration to me and my colleagues as we have gone through this battle. Many of you are familiar with it, Thomas Payne, but I will just read this part of it, "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet, we have this consolation with us that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
I pray and hope that we will have a glorious triumph as we fight for school choice not only in Utah, but across this country.
Thank you very much.
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