Utah Voucher Opponents Move to Block Program

Published May 1, 2007

In early April, opponents of Utah’s new universal voucher law began announced they had enough petition signatures to get a referendum to repeal it.

An alliance of teachers unions and some parents, Utahns for Public Schools, announced April 9 they had collected 130,000 signatures. The minimum required to put the anti-voucher referendum on a statewide ballot was 92,000.

State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff (R) released an opinion March 27 saying the referendum is not enough to stop vouchers from being issued, but it may weaken the law’s chances of withstanding a constitutional challenge.

At press time, the lieutenant governor’s office was working to verify the signatures by April 30. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) has said he will hold a special election in June to bring the referendum to voters, provided the signatures are valid. Otherwise, the program is scheduled to take effect this fall.

Protecting Status Quo

“We’re disappointed that [school choice opponents] have gone to this length to block the program from going into effect this year,” said Elisa Peterson, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education (PCE), a Utah-based advocacy organization.

However, “this program is a crack in the dike in the teachers union’s monopolistic control of the system,” Peterson said, “so it’s not surprising that they go to this length to stop it.”

Because Utah already has a voucher law in place, awarding scholarships to disabled students, limited school choice will be available in the state regardless of the petition effort’s success.

However, any provisions in the universal voucher law that are not also in the disabled students voucher program could be vulnerable in court. For example, the universal voucher would be available to students who attend private sectarian schools, while the disabled students voucher is not.

Utahns for Public Schools spokesperson Marilyn Kofford said the group wants a referendum because of the drastic impact they say the universal voucher program could have on the public school system.

“The bill passed in the House by one vote,” Kofford said. “We don’t think that is an overwhelming show of support for the voucher program. So we feel that every person should have the chance to vote on this, since it would create such a big change in the way our school system works.”

The universal voucher program, the Parent Choice in Education Act, would provide every Utah public school student with a voucher for private school education ranging from $500 to $3,000, depending on household income. Low-income students already attending private school also would be eligible.

Challenging Wrong Law

Clark Neily, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Virginia-based public interest law firm, said the referendum effort may not work as the law’s opponents would like: The voucher measure may have passed the legislature with a referendum-proof majority.

“They have a huge problem because they have challenged the wrong law,” Neily said.

“The voucher program was originally in House Bill 148, which squeaked through the legislature,” Neily explained. “Provisions, like additional oversight for schools, were added. Most of the provisions of the bill were rewritten into House Bill 174, which was then voted on by the legislature and passed with 72 percent of the House vote and 79 percent of the Senate.

“This is significant because the statute opponents are depending on for the referendum exempts bills that have passed by more than two-thirds of the legislature,” Neily explained. “They challenged House Bill 148, not 174, which is immune from a referendum. There really isn’t much left of House Bill 148 in 174 because most of the provisions were amended and superseded in the latter bill. My gut feeling is that ultimately the teacher unions are going to lose this one.”

Forcing Delay

Peterson said the petition drive is likely to succeed in forcing a referendum because school choice opponents have found strategic ways to get signatures for the petition.

“They’ve enlisted all the teachers and the Parent Teacher Association,” Peterson said. “There are a lot of interesting arguments and false claims being made about the program to convince people to help gather signatures and sign the petition. Some include statements like ‘The legislature was pressured to vote for this [by PCE] even though they didn’t want to.’ Legislators laughed at this and said, ‘You want to talk about pressure, then talk about the teachers union pressuring us not to support this.'”

Kofford said voucher opponents were specifically told not to bully or pressure anyone into signing the referendum petition.

Claiming Tax Hikes

Another false claim, Peterson said, is that the program will raise taxes to make up for money being drained from public schools.

“Fiscal analysis done by the legislature and other researchers show this will save money for public education,” Peterson said. “It does not take money from the uniform school funds, but rather the general fund. No money [is] taken from the school system, and they get money for kids that leave. Add that to the fact that they have just gotten a historic funding increase for education, and this is the thanks the legislature gets.”

In the 2008 budget, the Utah legislature allocated an additional $500 million to public education. The voucher law provides that each public school will continue to receive, for five years, the per-pupil funds for each child who leaves the system.

Anticipating a successful petition drive that will put the universal voucher program’s fate in the hands of Utah voters, PCE is currently working to educate the public on the merits of the voucher law. The organization expects a hard fight, but Peterson said she believes Utahans will not vote to repeal the law.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.