States

Push to Repeal Utah Voucher Law Advances

By Michele McNeil — April 17, 2007 5 min read

Opponents of Utah’s new voucher program gathered more than 130,000 signatures during their petition drive to overturn the country’s first universal taxpayer-funded voucher law, setting the stage for a statewide vote on one of the most divisive issues in K-12 education.

The signatures must still be certified by the state’s 29 county clerks, and then by the lieutenant governor. But an anti-voucher coalition says it has exceeded the requirements to place Utah’s newly enacted private-school-voucher program on the ballot.

“We believe with over 130,000 signatures, the people have spoken,” said Lindsay Zizumbo, a spokeswoman for Utahns for Public Schools, a coalition of public school and teachers’ union groups fighting the voucher law.

Court Fight Expected

In February, state lawmakers spoke. They approved a plan to offer every public school student, regardless of income, a tuition voucher worth up to $3,000 annually for use at a private school. (“Utah’s Broad Voucher Plan Would Break New Ground,” Feb. 14, 2007.) Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, signed the bill into law.

Most battles over newly enacted school choice laws are waged in court, where opponents seek to have laws overturned on constitutional grounds. And although some states have held referenda on whether to enact a new voucher program, this could mark the first time voters get to decide whether to repeal an existing law. But even still, both sides of Utah’s voucher debate are bracing for an eventual court fight.

“Nobody’s saying get rid of public schools,” said Nancy Pomeroy, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City-based Parents for Choice in Education, which spearheaded the lobbying effort to pass the voucher bill. “You can be for one and be for the rest. That’s what choice is.”

To successfully place a question on the statewide ballot in Utah, supporters had to collect 92,500 signatures, or 10 percent of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election.

Utahns for Public Schools submitted its 131,000 signatures to the county clerks on April 9; the clerks have until April 24 to certify the signatures and forward their count to the lieutenant governor, who then double-checks the petitions and determines whether the issue will be up for a statewide vote.

Gov. Huntsman would decide when to hold the vote, with options including a special election in June or September, the February presidential primary, and the November 2008 general election.

Lisa Roskelley, the governor’s spokeswoman, said he hasn’t made up his mind, although his preference is to hold it in conjunction with another election.

Even if voters rejected the law, it is unclear whether vouchers in Utah would be doomed.

The voucher program also is authorized in a second bill that clarified certain aspects of the program. That law was signed by the governor several days later, giving voucher opponents too little time to mount a second petition drive.

Gov. Huntsman asked Utah Attorney General Mark L. Shurtleff for his advice on whether vouchers would remain legal even if voters repealed the law. In an informal legal opinion on March 27, Mr. Shurtleff said he thought the second bill could “easily” stand alone, and that the choice program could still go into effect.

However, that scenario could be more damaging to public schools, because the second bill does not provide “mitigation” money to help soften the financial blow for schools that lose students to private schools, according to the attorney general’s opinion. It predicted that “the likely effect of a referendum petition … will serve only to deprive the public school system of [money].”

Gov. Huntsman, who has generally supported voucher programs, would likely have some influence over whether the program would still go forward if voters agreed to repeal the law, but Ms. Roskelley said it was too early to say whether he would side with the choice made by voters. Also, the state board of education, which under the law administers the voucher program, could also have a say in whether the voucher program would still take effect.

Already, the voucher issue has been contentious in Utah—first in the legislature, which narrowly approved the program earlier this year, and then in communities across the state, which heard dueling messages during the petition drive.

Strong-Arming Alleged

During the furious, three-week petition drive, each side accused the other of using heavy-handed techniques to influence voters. In a March 7 memo to all Utah public school districts, the attorney general’s office reminded educators that state law prohibits schools from using their resources—including money and teachers’ time—to participate in the petition drive. The memo was prompted, in part, by a public announcement that petitions would be available from teachers.

Ms. Pomeroy, of the school choice group, said voucher supporters weren’t surprised by the number of signatures collected, because the state has thousands of union members, including teachers and members of parent-teacher associations.

“They call it grassroots, but it wasn’t. It was union,” she said. “We don’t think it was any big groundswell against vouchers.”

In the final two weeks of the campaign, the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union group, ran radio ads in Utah reminding workers of their rights, after fielding several calls from Utah school employees who said they had been intimidated and harassed by petition organizers and union members.

At the same time, public school supporters accused the other side of similar actions, from threatening letters to name-calling.

“Of states that allow referenda, Utah has one of the highest hurdles—an enormous number of signatures and an incredibly short time to collect them,” Pat Rusk, a 4th grade teacher and coordinator of the petition drive, said during an April 9 press conference, according to a transcript provided by Utahns for Public Schools. “Through it all, parents, teachers, and involved citizens never backed down.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Push to Repeal Utah Voucher Law Advances

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