Voucher Showdown In Utah

Public School Supporters, Civil Liberties Activists Urge Utahns To Vote ‘No’ On Referendum 1

When the Utah legislature enacted the nation’s first statewide private school voucher bill earlier this year, Parents for Choice in Education (PCE) hailed the measure’s passage.

“This law gives all families – particularly those in the middle and low income brackets – the opportunity to get their children the best education possible for them,” PCE’s Elisa Peterson gushed in a press statement.

But the voucher scheme was a “gift” that large numbers of Utahns don’t want, and now they have the chance to return it. The euphemistically dubbed “Parents for Choice in Education Act,” which would provide $500 to $3,000 vouchers for every student wanting to attend private school, will go on the November ballot as Referendum 1.

Critics of the voucher scheme say that’s a good thing. Only in the minds of some of the nation’s most ardent voucher backers, they say, are parents clamoring for the ability to remove their kids from public schools and send them to private ones.

Despite poll upon poll showing little support for taxpayer funding of religious and other private schools and loss upon loss at the voting booth, voucher pushers continue to dump tons of money into pressuring lawmakers and voters nationwide to support the scheme.

It appears that burning ideology propels the pro-voucher camp. In a nutshell, the proponents of vouchers frequently trash public schools as government-regulated monopolies and teachers’ associations as lumbering, heavy-handed labor unions. Additionally, many of the well-funded private school voucher backers want to see more public funds channeled to religious schools and away from the public schools, which they view as wildly secular.

Take, for example, the situation unfolding in Utah. The state’s vast majority of students, around 96 percent, attend public schools, and many of its counties don’t even have private schools. The majority of families in the state are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and public school students have long had ample opportunity to receive religious instruction off school grounds during the school day pursuant to release-time policies.

No proof exists showing Utahns have been or are demanding a private school voucher system. Indeed, Utah media consistently reports polls showing overwhelming hostility to the idea of vouchers.

A survey released earlier this year by the Deseret Morning News and a local news channel, KSL-TV, revealed that 44 percent strongly objected to the voucher law and only 26 percent favored it. Moreover, a whopping 70 percent of the respondents said they would sign a petition to recall the private school voucher law via a Nov. 6, 2007, ballot initiative.

Nonetheless, with the backing of well-funded national right-wing organizations, and a compliant legislature and governor, Utah is embroiled in an increasingly divisive battle over private school vouchers.

The national groups that have targeted Utah still have an uphill battle. After the law was enacted in February, a group called Utahns for Public Schools quickly formed and successfully gathered more than 130,000 signatures, easily surpassing the 92,000 required, to place the private school voucher program on the November ballot.

In a March 8 editorial, The Salt Lake Tribune scored Utah lawmakers for pushing the statewide voucher law and supported the effort to kill the measure at the voting booth.

The newspaper’s editorial knocked the voucher proponents for constantly carping about the need for “choice” in education.

“Well, voters should have the choice,” The Tribune wryly noted, “to undo a reckless law foisted on them by legislators and a governor who chose to be deaf to the majority’s wishes. Polls have consistently shown that Utahns oppose taxes going to private schools.”

Also, the Utah Board of Education has pushed back against the law. It refused earlier this year to implement the voucher scheme, saying it would wait to see whether it was rejected by voters.

Kim Burningham, chairman of the Utah Board of Education, has been a high-profile advocate against the voucher plan.

“We are best served by schools that throw children together,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in an August interview.

According to Burningham, the primary impetus of the voucher supporters is to drain the public schools of funding, segregate students and funnel tax dollars to private schools that teach a specific religion or philosophy.

His opposition has drawn the ire of right-wing state lawmakers and national organizations that are behind the voucher push. Utah Rep. John Dougall (R-Highland), when told of Burningham’s comments, crassly responded that the chairman is “full of crap.”

If the trend of voucher losses at the voting booth continues, however, it is likely voucher supporters will yet again have a setback on their hands despite the millions they will pump into the state on behalf of their anti-public-school agenda.

Voters in 21 states and the District of Columbia have rejected various forms of private school voucher aid at the voting booths. In 2000, California and Michigan voters overwhelmingly turned away voucher schemes. Voucher initiatives have also been sunk by voters in Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

A poll released this summer by the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV found that 57 percent of respondents said they would most likely vote against the voucher law.

Lisa Johnson, a spokesperson for Utahns for Public Schools, told Church & State that polling in the state historically has shown little support for private school vouchers.

“We are optimistic that the voucher law will be defeated,” she said. “We’ve been concerned that a voucher law would divert resources from public schools, and from our perspective, we believe money could be better spent on our public schools.”

According to an extensive report from The Salt Lake Tribune, private school tuition in the state will likely remain out of reach for the state’s poorest families regardless of the voucher law, which is estimated to cost Utah more than $21 million after only two years of operation.

The Tribune reported in April that Utah has approximately 120 private schools, 14 of them Catholic, and that only 75 of the schools enroll enough students to participate in the voucher program. According to the newspaper, private school tuition ranges from $2,200 to about $15,000 and that only low-cost religious schools are “within reach of the poorest families armed with a $3,000 voucher.”

The voucher scheme also seems to run afoul of the state constitution. Article I, Section 4 says, “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or for the support of any ecclesiastical establishment.” Article X, Section 9, adds, “Neither the state of Utah nor its political subdivisions may make any appropriation for the direct support of any school or educational institution controlled by any religious organization.”

Beyond the legal and economic aspects of the voucher debate, critics of the plan hammer hard on the fact that the law carries little accountability for private schools that do accept vouchers. Indeed, language in the law shelters the private schools from strictures that public schools must operate under.

For example, The Tribune pointed out that the state’s Catholic schools admit students primarily because of their religious affiliation. The schools first accept students that are from parishes associated with the schools, followed by Catholics from other congregations.

Utah’s voucher law contains no language saying that voucher students cannot be discriminated against because of their religious backgrounds.

Moreover, the state’s public schools must serve all students. The state’s private schools, however, are not required to serve students with disabilities and many of them aren’t equipped to anyway.

The newspaper noted that voucher applications would include a disclaimer that the private schools “may not provide the same level of services” as public schools and that by accepting the voucher, parents forfeit special education services required by federal law.

Susan Brady, director of St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox School in Holladay, conceded that her school could not “effectively” serve a student with autism or one who is severely visually or hearing impaired.

Because voucher proponents have not had much local support, the lobbying group that foisted the voucher law on the Utah legislature, Parents for Choice in Education has relied on funding from national organizations and questionable tactics, such as conducting a so-called survey that sought to link supporters of same-sex marriage to opponents of vouchers.

In March, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Parents for Choice in Education has been funded “largely by out-of-state donors.” In April, the Associated Press delved into the funding of the pro-voucher drive, noting that in 2006 right-wing state lawmakers were “targeted with more than $500,000 in campaign donations” by national voucher groups.

The AP highlighted the funding of Parents for Choice in Education, noting that the head of Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne, gave $70,000 to the group. Byrne told the AP that if the voucher law were to “take hold” in Utah that “it will have a demonstrative effect that no other states can afford to ignore.”

Voucher foe Johnson told Church & State that Religious Right leader James Dobson is apparently hoping a voucher victory in Utah will have a ripple effect. An article with the headline, “A Huge Breakthrough,” from Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine, trumpeted the success of PCE in strong-arming the Utah legislature into passing a universal voucher bill.

PCE spokesperson Peterson, crowed to Citizen, “People [around the country] are talking about this.” She claimed she had received numerous calls from individuals inquiring how to replicate the success in their states.

Peterson’s group, the AP reported, also attracted lots of money from All Children Matter, a Grand Rapids, Mich., outfit headed by Betsy DeVos, wife of Amway founder Richard DeVos and a longtime right-wing financier. Between 1999 and 2005, the DeVos family dumped more than $7 million into pro-voucher political action committees, including more than $430,000 to All Children Matter.

In addition, a libertarian-oriented pro-business group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) helped PCE pressure the Utah legislature to pass the voucher program. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that ALEC essentially wrote the voucher bill for the lawmakers.

In late summer, The Tribune also reported that the pro-voucher group had employed a dubious tactic typically used in campaigns for public office – the “push-poll.” Push polls are used to sway voters by associating them with a highly offensive position or action.

In this case, PCE realized that same-sex marriage is a concept not welcomed by many in the Beehive State. So the group started calling residents asking them how their position on the voucher law would be altered if they realized that voucher supporters, which the PCE’s survey dubbed “liberal national teachers’ union,” also support same-sex unions.

Parents for Choice defended the underhanded tactic to The Tribune claiming that citizens would be “shocked” to learn about the real motives of the anti-voucher movement.

Anti-voucher activist Johnson said that the push poll was intended to divert attention from the matter at hand, namely whether Utah should fund private schools.

“Obviously same sex-unions are not on the ballot,” Johnson said. “It looks like they are trying to talk about anything but vouchers.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is encouraging Utah voters to vote against Referendum 1.

AU State Legislative Counsel Dena Spilker Sher said, “The voucher law, if allowed to stand, would actually work to undermine educational opportunities for Utah’s students. Public funds should be devoted to improving public schools.

“In fact,” she continued, “this voucher law would only work to advance the missions of the state’s private schools, many of them religious. Those schools should not turn to the taxpayer for a handout.”