- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

Utah’s newly passed voucher program — the most sweeping in the nation — is fighting for survival after opponents started a petition drive last week to put the law before voters.

The referendum effort, led by teachers unions and parents, needs nearly 92,000 signatures by April 9 to qualify for a place on the ballot. State officials would then decide whether to hold a special election or wait for the November 2008 ballot.

The voucher law, approved last month by a one-vote margin in the Utah House and signed into law by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, would give every student a private-school voucher ranging from $500 to $3,000.

Pat Rusk, spokeswoman for Utahns for Public Schools, which is leading the referendum drive, argued that the public doesn’t support the voucher law. Some parents set up tables last week during school conferences to gather signatures.

“Vouchers are not what Utah needs. We don’t have a lot of parents unhappy with our public schools,” said Mrs. Rusk, an elementary-school teacher who previously headed the state teachers union. “We believe this is a national agenda, and they’ve chosen Utah to fight this battle.”

Nancy Pomeroy, spokeswoman for Parents for Choice in Education, called the referendum drive “a turf war” pitting “the educrats and teachers union against parents and children.”

“We know there would be a referendum, a lawsuit, or both. The fact is, they don’t want parents to have educational choices,” said Mrs. Pomeroy, a former public-school teaching assistant. “They want the money coming to them regardless of what’s best for students.”

Utah’s program became the first in the nation to offer universal statewide vouchers. Other state programs, including those in Florida and Ohio, make vouchers available only to specific students, such as those who are disabled or low-income or attend failing schools.

Robert Fanger, spokesman for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, which aided the voucher push, said the Utah program is also unique in that it was never billed as a solution to a troubled public-school system.

“What this really boils down to is this wasn’t a response to a large, urban problem, like failing schools. Utah has a good school system,” Mr. Fanger said. “What this was was parents saying, ‘I want to choose a school that’s right for my child.’ ”

The Utah Legislature had defeated voucher proposals for seven years before approving this year’s bill. Sponsored by Republican Rep. Steve Urquhart, the 2007 proposal was different in that it doesn’t penalize public schools when a student leaves.

Instead of losing the per-pupil allotment for every student who departs with a voucher, school districts will continue to collect that funding for five years. The Legislature further cushioned the blow by sinking an additional $500 million into education this year.

“The public schools are still making money on the deal,” Mrs. Pomeroy said.

The amount of each voucher depends on family income, with the average voucher expected to come in at $2,000 per year. Students enrolled in private school would not be eligible for vouchers, although they would be available for those entering private kindergarten in the fall.

Even so, Mrs. Rusk predicted taxpayers would balk at the expense — the law is expected to cost $429 million over 13 years. About 96 percent of Utah students attend public school, the highest public-school attendance in the nation, she said.

“To me, it’s not about choice — it’s about who’s going to pay for your choice,” Mrs. Rusk said.

She noted that vouchers have a poor track record with the voters, going down to defeat whenever they appear on the ballot. On the other hand, proponents point to a poll showing that a majority of Utahns support the program.

Republican legislators said Friday that they had found a loophole that would allow the program to go forward despite the referendum drive. The voucher bill was essentially passed twice, once with amendments, and some legislators said that they could use the amended version to begin the program in the fall.

Voucher opponents said they would oppose in court any effort to instate the program before the referendum.

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