Lessons from Red States: Utah LDS Pass School Choice
Utah LDS led the way in bringing school choice to Utah. Idaho LDS can support school choice too.
LDS sponsored service day at Skyview High school, 2018.
According to Legend, members of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church oppose school choice programs. This is because LDS control their public schools, especially in high-LDS areas like Eastern Idaho. LDS are heavily concentrated in particular areas like Eastern Idaho. In such areas LDS can govern their school districts. They can choose LDS school administrators. They can choose LDS teachers. LDS children can generally attend public schools informed by the LDS culture around them. Public schools operate like de facto LDS schools.
This is a recipe for healthy, stable communities and good citizenship. It builds social trust and reflects amazing social trust. It is a great arrangement.
There are two problems with this quite stable arrangement.
First, the high social trust and cohesion that makes LDS communities wonderful makes them vulnerable to betrayal. Public schools could be corrupted from the outside, without the community knowing it. For instance, teachers could leave the community as LDS members in good standing, be corrupted in the teacher preparation programs, and then bring their corruption back to the community. National or state laws could force corrupt sex education practices on to schools and communities. The curriculum itself could teach lies about America or about themselves.
Second, members of the LDS church are able to ignore the problems in other communities or in places where there is low social trust. Other schools might be bad, while theirs are relatively less bad—and they will not sense that there is a need to do something about it.
The recent example of Utah, the state with the most LDS, shows that these problems need not blind LDS legislators to the virtues of educational choice.
Utah has overwhelmingly adopted a version of educational choice. The legislation provides $8,000 scholarships to qualifying families for private schools or other educational options. The bill cleared the largely LDS Utah Senate by a 20-8 margin, while it passed the largely LDS Utah House of Representatives on a 54-20 vote. All Democrats in each body opposed the bill. Only a handful of Republicans did (7 Republicans opposed the bill in the House).
This was not the first time that Utah had passed a school choice bill. Utah passed a more limited bill in 2007 by much narrower margins. Utah voters repealed it through a referendum funded heavily by the Utah Education Association. Since Utah’s bill passed each legislative body with more than two-thirds support, the new bill cannot be repealed through referendum.
Utah’s method of achieving school choice legislation accommodated the elements that make LDS communities nice places to live. It came with large raises for public school teachers.
Utah struck a grand bargain: raises for public school teachers combined with educational choice. Members of the LDS church crossed the Utah Education Association (UEA) in passing the school choice bill, but gave the UEA what they wanted on pay raises. While the establishment was in some ways aided by this bill, Utah's education establishment is also howling and complaining about any education choice. They fear that once education choice starts, students will drain from the system.
LDS legislators from Eastern Idaho are not yet following Utah’s lead. Senate Education Chair Dave Lent (R-Idaho Falls) has been reluctant to print bills in support of educational choice. Lent is the product of a well-functioning LDS system--he served on the school board in Idaho Falls for a dozen years; because of his experience in a high-trust, well-functioning community, he may not sense the need for education choice. Sen. Lent has so far prevented the issue from coming up in the Senate Ed Committee, even though the committee itself supports hearings on such a bill. Perhaps it will happen this week
Other powerful LDS legislators have the same profile. Rep. Wendy Horman, Chair of the Powerful JFAC in the Idaho Legislature, served as a public school trustee--in Bonneville. Those who support the establishment generally get support from establishment Idaho institutions like the Idaho School Boards Association--an association that has been pushing new gender identity policies for years--and to receive favorable coverage from knee-pad establishment journalists.
Here's hoping that LDS legislators like Lent and Horman will see how their schools could be corrupted through sex ed curriculum or critical race theory or sheer incompetence. They should turn away from the establishment on this crucial issue. The example of Utah shows that LDS legislators need not be reflexively hostile to educational choice. LDS legislators can follow Utah's example and back education choice this session.