Vouchers Vanquished: Utah Voters Overwhelmingly Reject Scheme to Aid Religious and Other Private Schools

Article excerpt

Patrick Byrne spent millions of dollars and most of 2007 trying to convince Utahns that funding private schools with public dollars was a grand idea. In the end, however, the wealthy founder of the Internet retail giant, Overstock.com, didn't convince that many people.

On Nov. 6, voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly said no to the socalled "Parents for Choice in Education Act," which would have provided every child in the state with a voucher from $500 to $3,000 to attend religious and other private schools.

Utah School Board Chairman Kim Burningham lauded the defeat of Referendum I, saying that the vote "sends a clear message."

"It sends a message," he said, "that Utahns believe in, and support, public schools."

In a state where more than 90 percent of students attend public schools, the referendum outcome showed little desire among Utahns to abandon the public school system.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the voucher measure was trounced in every county, going down to defeat by a 62 percent to 38 percent vote. In Beaver County, more than 80 percent of voters cast ballots against the referendum.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State praised the vote.

"This proves that vouchers aren't popular with liberals, moderates or conservatives," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. "The American people want to support public schools, not private religious education that teaches dogma, subjects staff to religious qualifications and discriminates in admissions."

State lawmakers narrowly passed the voucher law earlier this year with support from Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Local media noted that a rightwing, out-of-state legislators' association called the American Legislative Exchange Council played a key role in passing the measure. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the group essentially wrote the legislation for lawmakers.

Anti-voucher activists quickly worked to place the measure on the ballot, providing Utahns the opportunity to support or defeat it. The Beehive State then became consumed in an expensive, at times divisive, debate over the pros and cons of vouchers and the public school system.

Utah is one of the nation's most conservative states and is heavily influenced Saints (LDS). More than 60 percent of residents say they are Mormons. Indeed, Tribune columnist Rebecca Walsh has referred to the church as "the state's ultimate political authority."

Leaders of the church are generally supportive of the public school system. A conservative Mormon group in the state, called the Sutherland Institute, tried to undercut that stance and place the church's imprimatur on the pro-voucher side.

The institute issued a lengthy paper in the fall arguing that the church should support vouchers, in part, because of the federal government's alleged attempts to use the schools for "cultural cleansing" of minority groups, such as Mormons.

The ploy didn't work. The LDS headquarters issued a statement following Sutherland's essay, saying "The Church has taken no position on the issue of school vouchers." State Rep. Sheryl Allen (R-Bountiful), who is also an LDS member, decried the Sutherland essay, saying that she "shook my head when I read it."

Utahns' support of public schools is reflected in the state's meager private school system. The Tribune reported in February that the state has only about 120 private schools, 14 of them Catholic, and that more "than a third of Utah's private schools are too small to be eligible to participate, and several have decided not to accept vouchers."

Nevertheless, a front group calling itself "Parents for Choice in Education" (PCE) waged a fierce, and at times unethical, crusade for the voucher law. In summer, Utah media reported that PCE employed an underhanded "push poll," which is a tactic aimed at moving a voter toward or away from a particular candidate or policy position. …