Tuesday, September 25, 2007

School Voucher Debate

A standing room only crowd enjoyed a Voucher Debate which was sponsored by the United Women’s Forum on September 20, 2007 at the Bountiful City Public Library, Bountiful, Utah. An opening prayer was offered by Robyn Bagley and Janet Seamons led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance. After a warm welcome, Debra gave a brief introduction of the UWF explaining that United Women’s Forum is a faith based women’s board who are interested in current events and ways to make a difference in families, the community and the world.

Debra Poulsen, co-chair of UWF, introduced guests: Lauralee Christensen, who served as moderator, Joel Briscoe and Leah Barker who debated Referendum 1.Moderator Lauralee Christensen has resided with her family in Bountiful for 12 years. She was chosen as “2001 Utah Woman Making a Difference.” She has chaired several committees including the “Stay Alive” program which is helping challenged children in Africa. At the onset of the debate, she used C.S. Lewis admonition to “argue like Christians.”

Leah Barker, who lives with her family in Sandy Utah, represented Children First Utah, on the pro-voucher side. She is previously from Puerto Rico and feels like “the quality of one’s education serves as a life line and determines the lives we lead.” Leah has had 10 years of first hand experience living in low income areas and working with children in poverty. She has worked tirelessly trying to solve education problems and has seen personally the tragedy of people who are trapped in a bad learning environment, who drop out or get no higher education. Leah is a professor at the University of Utah.Joel Brisco, a Bountiful native and popular teacher of History at Bountiful High School for many years, represented opposition to Referendum 1. Joel resides with his family in Salt Lake City. His children attend public and charter school. He is active in the Democratic Party and teachers unions having served on the UEA Board of Directors and as President of the SLC School Board.

Lauralee Christensen outlined the format for the debate after stating “Governor Huntsman signed this bill in February, 2007 after it was narrowly affirmed in the legislature. Because of the close vote, the school vouchers bill was placed on the ballot by Governor Huntsman for the public to vote on in this November election and it is the most comprehensive Voucher Bill in the US at the present time.” Each side had 5 minutes to present their position and 3 minutes for clarification after which there would be a Question/Answer period from questions submitted by the public prior to the meeting. After that, there would be an opportunity for audience questions. A wide range of concerns were represented in the questions. Both Leah and Joel were passionate about their positions on vouchers and clearly showed their own views.

Joel addressed three issues in most of his responses: affordability, accountability and affability. He answered questions using these three measurements. His concerns throughout the debate focused primarily on private enterprise improperly trying to make money off of education for personal gain, discrimination against the poor because of costs, misuse of school funds, and finding acceptable teachers. “Even though money is still given to the public schools when a student leaves, over the long run public schools will loose money.”Leah’s answers focused on the position that 1.Vouchers are FOR public schools in ways such as smaller classrooms, continued flow of money into the public system and teacher competition. 2. Vouchers are FOR all parents (rich or poor) – giving them the opportunity to choose what is best for their own children. She said that “private schools help with over-crowding problems in the public schools and turn parents into customers who can place their children in academic settings that work for them. Do we trust parents or accept a random assignment to zip codes?”

Lauralee posed several questions to Leah and Joel addressing the different stakeholders with vouchers and how they would impact: students, parents and families, public and private schools and society in general. They both answered with dignity and consideration for the other. They were passionate, articulate and well informed in their responses and took very opposite points of view.

In closing, Joel stated that “...he would defend to his death your right to take a child where you want but I do no not want my tax dollars funding your child’s education. School vouchers have no accountability. We won’t know if they are working unless they have measurements to see if they are helping. It doesn’t help Utah families.”

Leah stated that “Money is not the issue. This Referendum is a principle of liberty and the most important vote of our time. We have agreed that every child needs to be educated. We have not agreed that they have to have a public education. Parents need to have a choice of what works for them and have options rather than feeling trapped. Students improve when they find a program that suits them.” The Voucher debate was very educational and informative. Thank you to everyone who helped out and participated in a very enjoyable evening.

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