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Utah Vouchers Rejected in Overwhelming Vote

By Michele McNeil — November 07, 2007 4 min read
Supporters cheer during anti-school voucher election night festivities on Nov. 6, in Salt Lake City. Voters decided against adopting the nation's first universal school voucher program.
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After a multimillion-dollar political campaign that pitted teachers’ unions nationally against school choice advocates, Utah voters yesterday repealed the nation’s first universal voucher law by an overwhelming margin.

With nearly 97 percent of the votes counted, state election results showed that 62 percent of voters rejected the voucher law narrowly enacted earlier this year, in what was Utah’s first “citizens’ veto” referendum in 30 years.

The level of opposition was much greater in the voting public than in the GOP-controlled legislature, which approved the voucher law by a single vote. Had the law been allowed to take effect, it would have provided all public school students with vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 a year, depending on family income.

To opponents of vouchers, the rejection was even more impressive coming from voters in a conservative, Republican state. “Taxpayers, no matter their politics, see vouchers as poor public policy,” Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said in a statement.

Others see it differently. “The vote against vouchers in Utah says less about that program than about the difficulty of winning an off-year referendum in the face of an avalanche of national union cash, mobilized public school employees, and a risk-averse public,” said Adam Schaeffer, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank that espouses libertarian ideas.

Kentucky Incumbent Loses

Although the Utah voucher referendum was the most high-profile education issue on a state ballot this year, other elections took place across the country that will affect education. In Kentucky, incumbent Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who has been dogged by a political hirings-and-firings scandal from his first term, lost to former state Attorney General Steve Beshear, a Democrat who has made expanding prekindergarten a priority. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, the only other governor in a race yesterday, was re-elected.

In Virginia, the outcome of several legislative races flipped control of the state Senate to Democratic from Republican, providing a new partisan balance in the Statehouse, where the House is still held by the GOP. Because legislatures set education funding priorities, statehouse races can have a big effect on school policy.

In Washington state, voters narrowly rejected—48 percent to 52 percent—an effort to make it easier for schools to raise taxes through school bond levies, according to unofficial state election results. That means school districts will still need to gain a “supermajority” of votes to approve levies, or at least 60 percent, rather than a simple majority.

Patrick Byrne, President and CEO of Overstock.com is reflected on a large television screen while being interviewed at the headquarters for supporters of school vouchers on Nov. 6, in Salt Lake City. Byrne donated 2.7 million to help support the voucher initiative.

In Utah, the financial war over vouchers that topped $8 million in overall campaign spending was largely a duel between the 3.2 million-member National Education Association and the pro-voucher champion Patrick Byrne, the millionaire founder and chief executive officer of Internet shopping site Overstock.com. While the NEA donated about $3 million to the cause, Mr. Byrne, who lives in Utah, and his family, donated $2.3 million, according to state campaign-finance filings and media reports.

Voucher proponents, who are accustomed to accusations that out-of-state money and interest groups finance their campaigns, turned the tables and charged that the Washington-based teachers’ union and smaller, statewide teachers’ unions from around the country flooded Utah with out-of-state donations.

“Despite a groundswell of support in recent months from Utah organizations and citizens, Referendum 1 [to uphold the voucher law] was voted down at the ballot box in yesterday’s municipal election following an intense campaign waged primarily by out-of-state voucher opponents,” said a statement by the Indianapolis-based, pro-voucher Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

In an interview last month, however, Utahns for Public Schools spokeswoman Lisa Johnson said that donations to the anti-voucher side were mostly small-dollar contributions from individual teachers across the country. Her group was formed to gather signatures to get the voucher issue placed on the ballot. “I think what we’ve seen is an overwhelming consensus that we should invest in our public schools,” Ms. Johnson said today.

For voucher opponents, the evidence was insufficient to support a new program like this. Said Utah state board of education President Kim Burningham, in an interview last month: “Why experiment?”

Blog: Campaign K-12

For regular updates on election 2007 results, read our Campaign K-12 blog, written by Education Week staff writer Michele McNeil.

While teachers and other voucher opponents were celebrating the voucher defeat, some leaders of the Hispanic community, which had worked to get Hispanic voters to the polls, were decrying the results.

Robert B. Aguirre, the chairman of the Washington-based Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options, in a statement released Wednesday, called attention to Utah’s Latino high school dropout rate, which is between 40 and 50 percent. The Hispanic council mobilized volunteers from across the country to Utah to help drum up support among the Latino community.

“Utah Latinos have long supported more educational options,” he said, “and even with their unprecedented turnout at the polls, they will remain confined to schoolsthat are failing them at frightening rates.”

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