Utah Voters Will Decide the Fate of Universal Vouchers

Published August 1, 2007

Utah voters will decide November 6 whether they want to preserve and implement a landmark K-12 voucher program that their elected representatives enacted into law this spring.

The referendum is the result of a petition drive mounted by adamant foes of school choice, led by teacher unions, the PTA, and other elements of the public education establishment organized as Utahns for Public Schools (UTPS). Utah permits citizens to petition for a statewide vote on repeal if a bill has passed the state legislature by less than a two-thirds margin.

Court Ignored Second Bill

A bitter donnybrook over ballot language ended June 8 when the Utah Supreme Court ruled the vote would be a straight yes-or-no on school vouchers, even though the legislature had passed an amended version of the law by a supermajority, which the state’s attorney general ruled should take precedence.

Political pundits forecast a media blitz this fall in Utah as the National Education Association (NEA)–the 3.2 million-member teachers union that has been instrumental in defeating voucher initiatives in several states–squares off against private-sector advocates of school choice. However, Utah advocates on both sides of the issue said they will emphasize grassroots work to inform voters.

“This is exactly the way the process is supposed to work,” said Carmen Snow, a UTPS spokesperson and petitioner to the Supreme Court. “We followed all the proper procedures to get the voucher issue on the ballot, and now the voters will have the final say. This is a victory for Utah voters.”

Voucher Supporters Optimistic

Parents for Choice in Education (PCE) and other voucher supporters had argued the petitioners targeted the wrong bill, thus creating much confusion for the citizenry. Ultimately, PCE spokesperson Leah Barker said voucher supporters were pleased with the court’s decision because it provided “clarity.”

As for the up-or-down vote on vouchers in November, “we will continue our aggressive grassroots effort to educate Utah citizens on the true merits of the voucher program,” said Barker. “Historically, Utah citizens have always supported initiatives that revolve around families. We are optimistic that once Utah citizens understand that vouchers are really about moms, dads, and kids, we will have the votes we need to get vouchers implemented and offer every Utah family equal access to a quality education.

“We will fight the NEA with relentless passion for the truth and what is right for Utah families,” Barker continued. “We were able to make history by getting the only statewide voucher program passed into law, and we hope to make history again by winning the votes of the people at the polls.”

Union Coercion Claimed

In February, establishment of the nation’s first universal voucher program appeared to be a certainty.

On February 12, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) signed House Bill 148, which had passed the House 38-37 and the Senate 19-10 and was to make means-tested vouchers of $500 to $3,000 per-pupil available to families who wished to transfer their children to private schools starting this fall.

In addition, the House on February 23 and the Senate on February 28 passed by overwhelming margins H.B. 174, which recodified the main parts of H.B. 148 while adding a few technical requirements. It omitted a section of H.B. 148 that provided compensatory funds to public schools losing students to vouchers.

On March 1, the anti-voucher forces filed notice of their intent to seek repeal of H.B. 148 via referendum. They collected 124,000 verifiable signatures in 45 days, gathering many at parent-teacher conferences and other public school functions.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation said it fielded complaints from Utah teachers of union coercion and misuse of school resources for political purposes.

On March 6, Huntsman signed H.B. 174 into law. On March 27, responding to the governor’s inquiry, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff issued an opinion that a voucher program should be implemented because H.B. 174 could “easily stand on its own” and the referendum would apply only to sections of the voucher program created by H.B. 148 but not found in H.B. 174.

Board Flouted Law

The battle lines grew sharper during April and May, as Shurtleff repeatedly admonished the State Board of Education to follow the rule of law by implementing vouchers through H.B. 174, and the elected board staunchly refused.

PCE charged that the board’s chairman, Kim Burningham, has a serious conflict of interest because he is working with UTPS to promote the anti-voucher referendum.

As to the ballot’s meaning, the Supreme Court decided it was “the clearly expressed intent of the legislature” that H.B. 174 was an amendment joined at the hip to H.B. 148. So the voters will decide whether they want 148 as amended by 174, or if they want neither.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.