Memo To Patrick Byrne

People In Utah Are A Lot Smarter Than You Think

People in Utah tend to be a conservative lot. At a time when President George W. Bush is facing approval ratings of just above 30 percent nationwide, Utahns are more forgiving. About 50 percent approve of the president there.

Utah is dominated by the culturally and politically conservative Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In national elections, Utah is solid “red.” In election years, most Democratic presidential contenders don’t even bother to visit the Beehive State.

Utahns may be conservative, but they are not extreme – and they know a bad idea when they see one. Thus, when on Nov. 6, voters in Utah went to the polls to decide the fate of a voucher scheme that would subsidize religious and other private schools, they spoke loud and clear: By a vote of 62 percent to 38 percent, Utahns rejected the proposal.

It was yet another in a long line of defeats for the pro-voucher crowd. And they’re not happy about it.

After voucher opponents gathered enough signatures to put the law on the ballot, businessman Patrick Byrne announced that he would bankroll the pro-voucher forces. Byrne, who made a fortune running the retailing Web site Overstock.com, poured nearly $3 million into a pro-voucher push.

Unable to hide his fury when vouchers went down in flames, Byrne decided that the people of Utah must be idiots.

Byrne called the voucher vote a “statewide IQ test” – one that Utah residents failed.

He added, “They don’t care enough about their kids. They care an awful lot about this system, this bureaucracy, but they don’t care enough about their kids to think outside the box.”

Continuing to pour on the bile, Byrne called public schools “broken” and said he is “ashamed” of Utah. He added, “This is parents looking at their kids getting a third-rate education and other kids getting basically a death sentence and saying, ‘That’s OK by me.’”

There’s a lot to dissect here. To begin with, the idea that Utahns don’t care about their children is offensive. Big families are common in Utah; it has the highest birthrate and youngest population of any state in the nation.

People in Utah rejected vouchers precisely because they do care about their children. They want them to get a good education, and they’re smart enough to realize that siphoning money away from the public school system and diverting it to religious and other private schools that have no obligation to serve the public is counterproductive.

Utahns, like people all over the country, also realize that the way to help children trapped in troubled schools is to make the necessary investment and changes required to improve those institutions. That way, all of the students get a boost – not just the few whose parents grab a voucher and run.

Nor is it likely that Utah residents are in thrall of a large bureaucratic system. The defeat of voucher schemes in state referenda is often pinned on teachers’ unions. These unions, we are told, run a few television ads, and the people, sheep-like, do what they are told.

Nonsense. Unions are not especially powerful in Utah, and to insist that they controlled public opinion during the recent vote is to imply that people in that state are unable to think for themselves.

A more plausible alternative is that Utahns are quite capable of thinking for themselves. They looked at this voucher plan, digested the arguments pro and con, saw what it would do and decided they wanted nothing to do with it.

It’s not as if vouchers suddenly appeared on the ballot one day. The issue had been under discussion in Utah for months. Newspapers hashed it out, the legislature debated the issue. Everyone had an opinion. At the end of the day, Utah residents considered those perspectives and made their choice.

The choice they made falls in line with several other states over the past four decades. Time and again, vouchers and other forms of tax aid to religious schools have been trounced at the ballot box.

New York voters rejected the idea 72 percent to 28 percent in 1967. Washington state voters said no to this aid 61 percent to 39 percent in 1975. In 1986, voters in Massachusetts rejected the scheme 70 percent to 30 percent. Oregon said no to it in 1990 by a vote of 67 percent to 33 percent. In 2000, California voters turned down the plan, 71 percent to 29 percent. The list goes on.

Do you sense a pattern here? Rather than insist that the people of Utah are stupid, perhaps Byrne would do better to simply accept the fact that his radical plan to tear down public education is not very popular – and that he should give up promoting it. Voters in Utah, and many other states, are too smart to buy what he’s selling.

One more thought on this: Byrne’s business, Overstock.com, is a discount retailer that sells furniture, electronics, books, watches and other items. He seems determined to take your money and use it to push vouchers.

Byrne thinks those of us who support church-state separation and public education are stupid. Let’s show him how smart we are by taking our business elsewhere.