Utah To Face Vote On Statewide Voucher Law

Supporters of public education in Utah have apparently collected enough signatures to put the state’s new voucher law on the ballot.

Legislators in Utah passed the measure earlier this year after a lobbying campaign underwritten by a right-wing group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which favors privatizing education. The law provides private school patrons with vouchers worth $500 to $3,000, and there is no income cap.

Utahns for Public Education, a group pulled together to oppose the legislation, gathered 131,000 signatures in about a month to put the measure on the ballot. Only 92,000 signatures were needed, meaning the referendum question is almost guaranteed a slot. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a voucher supporter, will decide when the vote will occur. Huntsman could add it to the state’s primary ballot in February of 2008 or wait until the general election in November.

Voucher advocates accused teachers’ unions of orchestrating the signature drive, but opponents of private school aid noted that people were motivated to sign be­cause vouchers are not popular in Utah. The largely rural state has few private schools, and 96 percent of the state residents send their children to public institutions.

“This is an unprecedented outpouring of support for public education,” Pat Rusk, a spokeswoman for Utahns for Public Education, said during a press conference. “When we began, the experts told us we would never be successful in an all-volunteer effort. Sometimes experts are wrong.”

Kim Burningham, president of the Utah State Board of Education, opposes vouchers. “There is an enormous gap between the promise of vouchers and the reality,” Burningham said. Salt Lake City’s Deseret News reported that Burn­ingham came to this conclusion after he spent time researching vouchers and talking to activists on both sides of the issue.

Added Burningham, “In the end, I can tell you that the idea that vouchers are a magic bullet is absurd.”

The situation is complicated because lawmakers in Utah passed two voucher bills and the referendum will target only one. But analysts say a strong vote against vouchers will send a clear signal to legislators that the people of Utah do not support subsidizing private schools with tax dollars.

In 1988, Utahns voted on a tuition tax credit measure. It was soundly defeated, 70 percent to 30 percent.