Utah Amicus Unfairly Criticizes Paul Mero

Why is it that Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute is such a magnet for criticism? Is it because it is warranted? Maybe sometimes, but I think usually not. In the case of the recently published Sutherland Institute white paper entitled Vouchers, Vows, and Vexations, I think Mr. Mero is being criticized by some because it feels good for them to criticize him. There doesn't appear to be anything in the document worth as much vilification as he has received.

I've been disappointed with the Utah Amicus lately. Instead of well-reasoned logic regarding Utah education vouchers, the Utah Amicus web site has resorted to name calling and sound-biting that are neither fair nor accurate. UA discussed briefly in a recent post about the interview KVNU Radio's "For the People" had with Paul Mero. Here's part of what UA had to say:

The Sutherland Institution lead thinker is still regurgitating his doomsday revelation that our local public schools are devoid community values and we better vote for vouchers to stave of "cultural extinction", and that's just the beginning.

I don't remember Paul Mero saying that.

Here, instead, is the sum of what he said that might be construed to remotely resemble UA's accusation. He said that the federal government has been historically notorious for not nurturing the cultural differences of minorities, instead preferring a one-size-fits-all solution. The most well-known recipient of such non-nurturing in Utah is the Mormon church. (Others, not specified in the radio interview, but described in Vouchers, Vows, and Vexations, are the Mennonites, Catholics, Blacks, and Native Americans.) Based on these examples (the most detailed--but not only--one being the Mormon church) The Sutherland Institute believes that vouchers will help to restore this sense of cultural appreciation among minorities.

Mero did say in the KVNU interview that voucher opponents fear that private-school voucher users will be "freaks of society or something" and not "real Americans." I see where he's coming from, but that's putting it a bit less than tactfully. Then again, I've done radio interviews, and I know what it's like to be put on the spot.

Utah Amicus goes on to say

My favorite part of the show was when I listened to Paul try to explain how the LDS culture was basically extinguished by the federal government, and that public education was a player in that extinction.

That wasn't what he said, either.

He basically said that current government schooling forces assimilation to a generic American standard, and that Mormons are the largest historical example of that in Utah. In the interview he said, "The voucher bill that was passed by the legislature has everything to do with helping low-income and minority students." Forty-plus percent of this population do not graduate from public schools. The public schools in Utah, according to Mero, are not helping the minority populations in Utah, and private schools are better suited to help them, since they do not have to subscribe to the one-size-fits-all paradigm.

The statement about "cultural extinction" can be found only in the introduction (page 8) of Vouchers, Vows, and Vexations and says this:

Practical realities may ultimately require modern Church members to confront an old choice: expand access to alternative education and educational choice, or face cultural extinction.
Based on the tenor of Vouchers, Vows, and Vexations, this makes perfect sense to me. Navajos have lost a great deal of their culture. So have Blacks. So have Mormons.

The only beef I have with Paul Mero's statements in the KVNU interview is that he stated, in essence, that if a community is (for example) 75% LDS that LDS values should predominate for that community. I disagree.

I agree with KVNU's Tom Grover is correct that public education should be religiously neutral. The problem is that it is not, by and large, religiously neutral. Because they can't encourage the understanding of various religions, the dominant religion is no religion at all.

Here are some substantive paragraphs from Vouchers, Vows, and Vexations that help to describe where Sutherland is coming from with relation to vouchers. From page 32:

[Thomas] Jefferson believed that tax-subsidized elementary schools should be wholly governed by parents of the local neighborhood. "But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the Governor and Council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further and amend the bill so as to commit to the Governor and Council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores."
Although the way Mormonism was treated by the Federal Government becomes the main focus of the article, page 35 makes it clear that Mormonism was not the only minority thus treated. (A failure to carefully read or understand this most salient point can convey to the reader a completely different perspective than the one that was intended.)

President Andrew Jackson developed the social-engineering paradigm used against Native Americans, Mormons, and Japanese-Americans. Loose or partial variations of the paradigm were also employed against Mennonites, Catholics, African-Americans,German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and other distinctive demographic minorities, depending upon the strength and sophistication of the relevant minority group’s opposition.

Once applied to the unpopular Native Americans, use of the Jacksonian Paradigm evolved and spread. Starvation and other means were used to compel Native-American school attendance.

To belie the statement in the interview that religious discussion always has to resort to animosity, page 38 tells the story of Frances Burke, a public school teacher who was sent to Utah to de-Mormonize public education. He then describes how well she was loved in the community of Tocquerville, Utah despite her being of a different religious faith and despite the reason for which she was sent there. Mero concludes the story with this observation:

Frances Burke’s story is perhaps illustrative of how we can reclaim Utah’s education identity and how we can overcome politics as usual to answer urgent and important questions of education policy today. Frances was in the middle of the education wars of those days. There were fewer contentious spots than standing as an educator in rural Utah publicly proclaiming your intent to use “anti-Mormon” schools to convert Latter-day Saints. But upon her death, she was not remembered for any contentions in which she was involved, she was remembered for who she was. She was well-respected not because she defended a system of education or a preference of faith, she was well-respected because she saw her neighbors as she saw herself, a valued human being.

I'll admit that because I come from the perspective of already supporting vouchers, I read Vouchers, Vows, and Vexations with a bias in favor of vouchers. Those who are opposed to vouchers are more likely not to pay attention to the details of Mero's logic. I have paid attention to it, and it makes sense to me. I personally feel that if someone reads Vouchers, Vows, and Vexations with an intent to understand the details of what is written, that they will be compelled to conclude that, regardless of their position for or against vouchers, that this Sutherland whitepaper is an excellent defense of vouchers.

Postscript: Another sub-conversation in the KVNU interview had to do with the average cost of public education in Utah. According to this paper, Sutherland calculates the average cost of private education in Utah to be $4,519.97.


  1. Perhaps Americans did force the people of Deseret to abandon their culture and assimilate with the rest of the new American nation. I for one am glad that failed culture is gone. If public education really is partially to blame for eliminating the extreme peculiarities common to the pioneer culture of my ancestors than it has done our people of today one of the greatest favors we could ever have bestowed on us. Colorado City and Hildale are available as contemporary evidence of what happens to communities who succeed in separating themselves from general society. For me Mr. Mero's argument builds on the idea in my mind that public schooling has proven to be a historically beneficial influence to Utah's society and culture.

    Mr. Mero's effort to try to associate historical political views of revered church leaders with policy decisions of today is shamefully deceptive. We don't know what Brigham Young would think is best for us today. We only know what he preferred for his people 150 years ago when they were still struggling to survive in the desert society they had so recently worked so hard to create. Mr. Mero's quotes from church leaders of that era tell us exactly nothing about what is important for our kids now. The voucher discussion should be held on its merits for society today...not on what long dead LDS church leaders wanted for their people. Religious blackmail doesn't make good public policy.

    Convince me with actual evidence that private schools are better for our kids than the current system and maybe you'll have a convert in me. Your effort won't be easy...I love my kid's public school and I've studied local private schools extensively in hopes of finding something even marginally better than what she has now. I've failed.

    If one were to attempt to convince me that my support for our current system of education is wrong because it is in opposition to what Brigham Young would have wanted for our kids today I'll not have much trouble discounting the merit of the policy position they advocate. Thats what Mr. Mero did and I think Utah Amicus was too gentle in their dismissal of his screed.

  2. I'll have to go back and read Sutherland's white paper from the perspective that you raised to see whether I agree with your claim that Mr. Mero is claiming that he's advocating for today what Brigham Young might have thought best for us today. (Sorry for the run-on sentence ;-) ).

    At first glance I don't think so, but you may be right...

  3. Jeremy,

    I'm rereading Sutherland's paper now, wherein he compares the way the American Indians were treated similarly to the way the Mormons were treated. I'm not trying to be snide, but perhaps a different way to approach this is to restate your first three sentences thusly and see if you still agree with them: "Perhaps Americans did force the [American Indians] to abandon their culture and assimilate with the rest of the new American nation. I for one am glad that failed culture is gone. If public education really is partially to blame for eliminating the extreme peculiarities common to the [Native American] culture of [our] ancestors than it has done our people of today one of the greatest favors we could ever have bestowed on us."

  4. I'm not an American Indian. I am not in a position to be thankful that their culture has been so changed that it nearly doesn't exist any longer. I did live on the Navajo Indian Reservation for nearly a year and I can tell you that those Navajos I know who have learned and accepted modernity are far better off emotionally, financially, and mentally than those who refuse to adapt. They may not have as strong a grasp on their cultural roots as the more stubborn members of that populace but they are better off in every other way.

    I am a Utahn whose ancestors were pioneers. I'm glad their culture was changed because I am afraid we could have ended up like those whose prophet is currently on trial for forcing 14 year old girls to marry. I don't think that culture is the type of existence I'd want for my three little girls. I'm glad my daughters will be raised to be independent strong women with a firm knowledge of their importance and worth as women. I believe based on available evidence that my daughters will be better off in our current society than they would be in the one Mr. Mero seems to wish existed.

    All of this said...if vouchers are good, as Mr. Mero seems to be claiming, because they will allow cultural distinctness/exclusivity to be a primary objective of public school dollars I can't imagine that will be good for our nation. I don't want my taxes funding madrassas, medicine men, or LDS seminary classes. I do think people should be able to put their kids in any type of school they want but I shouldn’t have to foot the bill for it in any way. Public schools which teach basic educational necessities to our kids and common values vital to the maintenance of our national identity are good for our society. They are a good focus for our tax dollars. Private schools are different and while some of them may have value they don’t deserve taxpayer financing unless the public system is so broken that they are the only viable alternative.

    I will admit that while I wasn’t convinced by Mero’s document that vouchers are a good idea for Utah I did learn a lot about the history of Utah’s school system. The document itself was very interesting. The arguments just weren’t compelling to me…but I am pretty biased :-)

  5. Thanks for you reply. I will admit you raise some excellent points. I see your points about Native Americans as well as polygamy. I can't imagine living under polygamy, and you're probably right that we would be much more often beset with the Warren-Jeffs type of problems if polygamy were generally still practiced. (Incidentally, my wife and I are cousins of sorts because we come through two different polygamist wives of the same husband.)

    As to your objecting to use of tax dollars for private schools: Mero points out on page 32 that (in my interpretation) the public schools that people like Thomas Jefferson supported--and for which he advocated tax support--were much more akin to today's private schools than they are to our public schools.

  6. If the current educational system has failed minorities, we can't assume logically that vouchers will fix that problem. The problem for minorities is more complex than that. It's not just a problem of where they go to school or with whom. That a great oversimplification of the minority education problem in the state.

    And as for Utah losing it's Mormon influence and culture, one need only look at who the decision makers are in this state at virtually every level, both elected and appointed. We're talking a super majority that is more like the 800-lb gorilla in the room that gets to sit wherever he wants to.

    I am not involved in public education, and I no longer have children in school, but I strongly believe our focus should be on strengthening and improving the public schools to the benefit of ALL students and not just the few who might have the opportunity to use vouchers.

  7. bekkieann,

    Thanks for your insights. You're right that it's an oversimplification of the minority issue in Utah, but it is a generality that is correct. We need to do more to foster minority culture, and the public schools aren't helping. Private schools would tend to do a better job. America is blandly homogeneous, much more so than most countries I can think of.

    It is true to an extent that Mormonism dominates culture, but that's just the problem. If we had public schools as they existed in the time of Jefferson, Adams, etc. we would have much more variety in the state of Utah.

    I agree that we should improve public education as necessary. Vouchers would improve both private and public schools. I don't think yours is a valid argument in this regard.

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  9. "Why is it that Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute is such a magnet for criticism?"


    Paul Mero: Sexual orientation is an illusion.

  10. Perhaps he's a target because he's a bigot?


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