Utah Uprising: Public School Supporters Seek Ballot Vote On School Voucher Scheme

School voucher supporters are a pushy bunch.

Despite poll after poll showing little support for taxpayer funding of religious and other private schools and loss after loss at the voting booth, voucher advocates relentlessly continue their campaign.

One recent and egregious example of the pro-voucher crowd getting its way with lawmakers emanates from Utah.

After seven years of going down to defeat, a voucher scheme finally passed the Utah legislature. Gov. Jon Hunstman (R) promptly fell in line and signed the bill into law, which Utah's legislative analysts say is likely to cost taxpayers about $429 million within its first 13 years.

The Utah measure, dubbed the "Parents for Choice in Education Act," is the most radical in the nation. HB148 is a universal bill, meaning all students would be eligible for vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 to pay for tuition at private schools.

But while the pro-voucher zealots were finally successful in foisting on the state a ludicrously expensive voucher program, they have yet to convince the vast majority of Utah citizens of the scheme's worthiness.

Only hours after Huntsman signed the voucher plan into law, a new Utah group announced a petition drive to bring the controversy up for a vote in the 2008 general election. Utahns for Public Schools must gather close to 92,000 signatures in a little over a month to place the issue before the voters.

Indications are favorable to reach the goal.

First, Utah media reports that polls for years have showed overwhelming hostility to the idea of vouchers. In fact, a survey released Saturday by the Deseret Morning News and local news channel KSL-TV revealed that 44 percent of respondents "strongly oppose" the voucher law. Only 26 percent "strongly favor" the voucher law. Seventy percent of respondents said they would "most likely sign" the petition being circulated by Utahns for Public Schools, and 55 percent said they would vote against the voucher law.

And it appears that Utah lawmakers are also concerned about the voucher law's fate before voters. Not long after the governor signed HB 148 and the petition drive was made public, he was presented by lawmakers with another bill, HB 174, which according to the Deseret Morning News, included some of the language of the original voucher bill.

It was intended as a supplement to the voucher bill, but some lawmakers told the newspaper that HB 174 may be able to stand alone. Huntsman also signed that measure into law. Thus if HB 148 were defeated by voters, a voucher scheme would still remain on the books, the lawmakers maintain.

Not many are buying that argument.

Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education, told reporters, "It would be very difficult, if not impossible" for the supplemental voucher bill to replace the first voucher bill if it were defeated by voters. The supplemental bill, Lear said, "was clearly not meant to stand alone."

The tactic of sneaking through an incomplete voucher bill, however, is revealing of the lawmakers' concerns that Utahns don't support the funding of private school education.

In a March 8 editorial, The Salt Lake Tribune blasted the lawmakers and governor for ignoring the sentiments of Utahns. The editorial page noted that well-funded, obsessively driven voucher supporters are constantly repeating the tired refrain that parents should have "choice" in education.

"Well," the Tribune opined, "voters should have the choice to undo a reckless law foisted on them by legislators and a governor who chose to be deaf to the majority's wishes. Polls have consistently shown that Utahns oppose taxes going to private schools."

Here's hoping that Utahns successfully squash another attempt by pro-voucher forces.