The Utah state board of education on May 3 voted not to implement a law that would allow the state’s new universal voucher program to take effect this autumn.
Earlier this spring, the Utah Legislature passed two bills creating the universal voucher program. The first, House Bill 148, passed by only a one-vote majority in the state House. Voucher opponents quickly launched a petition drive to give voters an opportunity to repeal the measure.
Shortly thereafter, House Bill 174, which amended and clarified H.B. 148, passed by a referendum-proof two-thirds majority. It became law at midnight on April 30.
H.B. 174 charged the state board of education with creating regulations for the program’s implementation this fall. At its May 3 meeting, the board voted to defy that provision, even though Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has said H.B. 174 is strong enough to implement the voucher program on its own.
Voucher opponents were faced with a tight deadline to oppose the program after H.B. 148’s passage, and so they targeted only that bill in their petition drive to put the measure on a referendum for voters to repeal. Though Utahns for Public Schools, the anti-voucher group, needed only 92,000 signatures, they collected 131,000. On April 30, 124,000 of those signatures were certified as valid.
“It was too late for the opponents to change course,” explained Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, a national civil liberties law firm that has been following the case. “They got plenty of signatures, but they’re stuck with a petition drive that cannot legally address the program they want it to address. They are not happy.”
The next step in the process was for the state to draw up the ballot language. Under state law, referendum descriptions cannot be more than 100 words long and must accurately depict for voters the law being challenged–in this case, H.B. 148. The deadline for preparing the ballot language is May 15.
Leah Barker, spokeswoman for Parents for Choice in Education, a local pro-voucher group, said the group would determine its next actions after seeing the language.
“The local newspaper asked us if we’re going to sue,” Barker said. “Are we the only ones interested in suing? What about the attorney general’s office, or the state legislature, or the sponsor of the bill? [The board of education] was talking [May 3] about the attorney general’s opinion as if it was [just] anyone’s opinion. Finally, one of the board members said, ‘The attorney general is our superior, and we owe him some respect. We may not agree with his opinion, but it’s still one we need to respect.’
“They’re cheating our kids out of a great education, and by stalling this program, they’re killing the hope of thousands of families,” Barker continued. “We’ve had more than 5,000 families sign up for this program within two months, all of them eager and desperate for a school that works for them. The state board proved it will safeguard the [current] system above all else–above moms and kids, and above the law.”
Karla Dial ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.