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School Vouchers: The Big Election-Night Loser

By Michele McNeil — November 07, 2007 2 min read

Utah voters decisively and loudly spoke through the ballot box and repealed what would have been the nation’s first universal voucher program, according to unofficial election results. When the legislature approved the law earlier this year, the margin was by a single vote. But the opposition in the general voting public was much stronger. With nearly 97 percent of the votes counted, 62 percent voted against vouchers, 38 percent voted for, during Utah’s first “citizens’ veto” statewide referendum in 30 years.

This is a resounding victory for the law’s biggest opponents: the teachers’ unions, including the National Education Association, which fought with money and rhetoric to defeat vouchers.

I think it’s clear that even though voters have spoken, no one has had the final word yet. The question now is: What’s next for vouchers, and for Utah?

When I was in Utah reporting on a story previewing the election, many voucher opponents wondered if some legislators might retaliate. After all, lawmakers (who are elected by Utahns) approved the law (albeit by one vote) enacting vouchers worth up to $3,000 for every public school student to use at a private school. But some fear those legislators, stung by defeat, may not be as generous in the coming years toward public schools, or may want to restructure or sap some power away from the separately elected state board of education, which played a key role in opposing vouchers.

“We defied them,” state board of education president Kim Burningham told me last month, when I was in Utah reporting on this story. He and the board, which comprises mainly voucher opponents, refused to implement the voucher program while the statewide vote was looming, despite urging from Utah’s Republican attorney general.

Vouchers probably won’t be back again in Utah’s 2008 legislative session, but board members of the pro-voucher Parents for Choice in Education told me they’ll make sure other hot-button issues will be—such as merit pay for teachers. So you can bet the NEA won’t let its guard down in Utah for awhile, after having spent more than $3 million to defeat vouchers.

Meanwhile, on the national scene, advocates such as Robert Enlow, the executive director of the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, maintain that this will not slow the momentum of vouchers. (Though it’s clear that if vouchers had been approved, this would have been a gigantic victory for the school choice movement.) There are other states to pursue -- such as Louisiana, where Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal has come out in favor of vouchers.

In Utah, this was a bitter fight, and hard feelings will undoubtedly linger.