Patrick Byrne spent millions of dollars and most of 2007 trying to convince Utahns that funding private schools with public dollars was a grand idea. In the end, however, the wealthy founder of the Internet retail giant, Overstock.com, didn’t convince that many people.
On Nov. 6, voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly said no to the so-called “Parents for Choice in Education Act,” which would have provided every child in the state with a voucher from $500 to $3,000 to attend religious and other private schools.
Utah School Board Chairman Kim Burningham lauded the defeat of Referendum 1, saying that the vote “sends a clear message.”
“It sends a message,” he said, “that Utahns believe in, and support, public schools.”
In a state where more than 90 percent of students attend public schools, the referendum outcome showed little desire among Utahns to abandon the public school system.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the voucher measure was trounced in every county, going down to defeat by a 62 percent to 38 percent vote. In Beaver County, more than 80 percent of voters cast ballots against the referendum.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State praised the vote.
“This proves that vouchers aren’t popular with liberals, moderates or conservatives,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “The American people want to support public schools, not private religious education that teaches dogma, subjects staff to religious qualifications and discriminates in admissions.”
State lawmakers narrowly passed the voucher law earlier this year with support from Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Local media noted that a right-wing, out-of-state legislators’ association called the American Legislative Exchange Council played a key role in passing the measure. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the group essentially wrote the legislation for lawmakers.
Anti-voucher activists quickly worked to place the measure on the ballot, providing Utahns the opportunity to support or defeat it. The Beehive State then became consumed in an expensive, at times divisive, debate over the pros and cons of vouchers and the public school system.
Utah is one of the nation’s most conservative states and is heavily influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). More than 60 percent of residents say they are Mormons. Indeed, Tribune columnist Rebecca Walsh has referred to the church as “the state’s ultimate political authority.”
Leaders of the church are generally supportive of the public school system. A conservative Mormon group in the state, called the Sutherland Institute, tried to undercut that stance and place the church’s imprimatur on the pro-voucher side.
The institute issued a lengthy paper in the fall arguing that the church should support vouchers, in part, because of the federal government’s alleged attempts to use the schools for “cultural cleansing” of minority groups, such as Mormons.
The ploy didn’t work. The LDS headquarters issued a statement following Sutherland’s essay, saying “The Church has taken no position on the issue of school vouchers.” State Rep. Sheryl Allen (R-Bountiful), who is also an LDS member, decried the Sutherland essay, saying that she “shook my head when I read it.”
Utahns’ support of public schools is reflected in the state’s meager private school system. The Tribune reported in February that the state has only about 120 private schools, 14 of them Catholic, and that more “than a third of Utah’s private schools are too small to be eligible to participate, and several have decided not to accept vouchers.”
Nevertheless, a front group calling itself “Parents for Choice in Education” (PCE) waged a fierce, and at times unethical, crusade for the voucher law. In summer, Utah media reported that PCE employed an underhanded “push poll,” which is a tactic aimed at moving a voter toward or away from a particular candidate or policy position.
In a telephone survey, Utahns were asked whether their views on vouchers would shift if they were aware that the teachers’ organizations opposing vouchers were also in support of same-sex unions and higher taxes. (See “Voucher Showdown In Utah,” October 2007 Church & State.) These issues were irrelevant to the voucher topic, but PCE thought the association would help the referendum in a conservative state.
PCE was largely funded, according to the Deseret Morning News, by Byrne. The Overstock.com chief executive told the Associated Press that he hoped the Utah voucher program would spark other states to enact similar measures.
The newspaper reported in November that Byrne and his family gave $2.9 million to PCE, which was over three-fourths of that group’s donations. The Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, of which Byrne is a director, also pumped money into PCE.
Religious Right organizations such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family advocated for the voucher plan as well. Like Byrne, Focus on the Family hoped a voucher win in Utah would produce a ripple effect in other states.
Conservative pundit George Will also got behind the movement, writing in his syndicated column that the Utah referendum was “more important to the nation than most of next year’s elections will be.” Hyperbole aside, Will also provided an incorrect picture of the accessibility of private schools in the state, saying that the average tuition was significantly lower than the $7,500 he claimed the state expends per public school student.
The firepower from the right was matched, however, by a coalition called Utahns For Public Schools, of which Americans United was a member. Although conservative commentators such as Will claimed that the anti-voucher movement was backed primarily by teachers’ unions, the Utahns For Public Schools Web site provides a list of supporters that is much broader.
Besides Americans United, other groups supporting the anti-voucher push included the Utah State Parent Teacher Association (PTA), the NAACP Salt Lake Chapter, League of Women Voters, American Association of University Women, National Council of Jewish Women and the Legislative Coalition for People with Disabilities.
The coalition raised around $3 million to counter the pro-voucher push. Through advertising, media interviews and a Web site, opponents of Referendum 1 argued that the voucher program would be costly to citizens, a drain on funding for public schools and unlikely to help the state’s poorest families.
The pro-voucher movement repeatedly argued that Utah’s public schools were “broken” or failing and that the private sector would create competition that would actually help the public schools. The pro-voucher groups also argued that low-income students should be given the opportunity to attend the state’s private schools.
But critics of Referendum 1, including the editorial page of The Salt Lake Tribune, noted that adherents of the voucher movement appear bent on advancing a right-wing political ideology long opposed to public schools.
For example, the Friedman Foundation, which donated heavily to push the voucher scheme, has spent years advocating an extreme “free market” philosophy. The late laissez-faire economist Milton Friedman had long championed private schools and brutally attacked public schools as part of an oppressive bureaucracy.
The foundation issued a press release following the referendum beating on the national teachers union for depriving Utahns of the “freedom to choose the education that works best.” The group tried to spin the defeat, claiming in its statement that the “momentum of the national school choice movement, however, is strong, and will remain so.”
In reality, voucher schemes of varying types have suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of voters. Utah joins a list of other states, including California, Michigan and Colorado, which have rejected vouchers, usually overwhelmingly.
Other critics of the Utah voucher law, including state school board chair Burningam, argued that it would pose constitutional problems by funneling tax dollars to religious schools. Utah’s constitution includes provisions against public funding of religious institutions.
For example, Article X, Section 9 states, “Neither the state of Utah nor its political subdivisions may make any appropriation for the direct support of any school or educational institution controlled by any religious organization.”
In a Nov. 5 editorial dubbed “No to Referendum 1,” The Tribune wrote, “The Utah and U.S. constitutions rightly forbid using public money to fund instruction in religious doctrine. That is why implementing the law would surely trigger lawsuits that would put taxpayers on the hook for millions of dollars in legal bills. Regardless of the outcome in court, it can be said with certainty today that the voucher law is an offense to the spirit of separating church and state.”
Reports also surfaced showing that despite voucher supporters’ alleged concern that low-income families be given a chance to attend private schools, the voucher program would likely do little to help them.
The Deseret Morning News reported on Oct. 25 that its study of private school tuition in the state revealed that even if the voucher law passed, “families would still need another $4,800 or so per child to afford typical annual tuition in Utah.”
The newspaper’s study of private schools showed that the “weighted average for tuition was $7,824 a year per student.” Earlier in the year, The Salt Lake Tribune reported similarly that only low-cost religious schools “are within reach of the poorest families armed with a $3,000 voucher.”
Voucher booster Byrne reacted bitterly to his cause’s defeat, charging that Utahns had failed a “statewide IQ test.”
“They don’t care enough about their kids,” Byrne told The Tribune. “They care an awful lot about this system, this bureaucracy, but they don’t care enough about their kids to think outside the box.”
He told the Morning News that he was “ashamed of Utah” and said that parents in the state were “looking at their kids getting a third-rate education and other kids getting basically a death sentence and saying, ‘That’s OK by me.’”
In a discussion with The Tribune, Byrne even chided Huntsman for his role in the battle.
“When he asked for my support [in his campaign for governor], he told me he is going to be the voucher governor,” Byrne said. “Not only was it his No. 1 priority, it was what he was going to be all about. He did, I think, a very tepid job, and then when the polls came out on the referendum, he was pretty much missing in action.”
Byrne added, however, that he thought a voucher program would have a good chance of carrying the day in other states. He mentioned South Carolina as a place where “freedom-oriented groups” were likely to be receptive. He singled out African Americans as allegedly receptive to vouchers.
But a poll reported in September by the Myrtle Beach Sun News showed that 48 percent of African Americans in South Carolina oppose vouchers, while only 18 percent favor them.
Americans United State Legislative Counsel Dena Sher, who steered AU’s involvement in Utah’s anti-voucher coalition, said vouchers are likely to be considered by legislators in South Carolina and other states in 2008.“The outcome in Utah should give other state lawmakers pause,” Sher said. “The debate over vouchers was costly and divisive and, in the end, voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea of funding private schools with public funds. There is a pattern emerging that is definitely anti-voucher.”