Professor passionate for vouchers

By By Lauren Mangelson

By Lauren Mangelson

As the fiery debate over school vouchers continues, U professor Leah Barker is standing at the threshold, fanning the flames.

Barker, executive director for the scholarship program Children First Utah, is also a vocal advocate for the pro-voucher group Parents for Choice. Though she spends her time helping low-income families from Salt Lake City’s west side access higher education, Barker is no stranger to sacrifice in the name of education.

When Barker was just five years old, she moved to her mother’s native island of Puerto Rico, along with her five siblings. The family lived in a shack, while her mother spent her days working in a factory and her nights pursuing a bachelor’s degree, and later a master’s, from the University of Puerto Rico.

“We were very poor,” Barker said. “We arrived in Puerto Rico with nothing more than the clothes on our backs.”

Despite the family’s financial situation, Barker’s mother insisted that her children attend private schools, believing education was their ticket out of poverty. The family often skimped by on little food so they could afford to attend school.

“My mother didn’t talk about anything besides education,” Barker said.

While opponents of a school voucher program say vouchers will only benefit wealthy families who can afford to pay costs of private schooling that exceed the proposed tax credit, Barker sees vouchers as a way to level the playing field.

“Vouchers could be a long-term solution to poverty,” Barker said.

She has responded publicly through blogs and press releases to anti-voucher groups such as the NAACP and the State Board of Education.

The daughter of a public school teacher, Barker said she is not against the public school system. Her daughter is currently enrolled in a Salt Lake public high school, the same from which her son graduated.

But, she says, not all children can succeed in public schools.

“It’s unreasonable to expect one system to meet the needs of 500,000 diverse learners,” Barker said.

Barker will resume teaching a course titled, “Ethnic Minority Families” at the U this fall. She will concurrently be using her voice and position to advocate school vouchers until the issue is placed on the ballot for referendum in November.

“I want to be part of the solution to the problem,” she said.

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