Nation: Utah lawmakers approve vouchers, opponents push referendum

Opponents of a new law giving families in Utah more choice in their own children’s education have gathered enough signatures to force the issue to a statewide vote.

The group opposes Utah’s new "Parent Choice in Education Act," which will provide nearly every Utah parent with school-aged children a voucher worth $500 to $3,000, depending on their annual income. The voucher could be used at any eligible independent school. Any student currently enrolled in public school is eligible for a voucher; state enrollment data show that more than 95 percent of Utah students are enrolled in public schools. The plan will give parents more choice by making private school tuition more affordable.

Children already enrolled in private schools also could receive a voucher if their family incomes are below 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. Census data indicate that about 20 percent of Utah private school families will qualify. In addition, all children will be eligible for vouchers when they first enter kindergarten, regardless of family income, which means that every Utah child will be eligible for the program by 2020.

"Utahns for Public Schools," the opposition group, is made up primarily of public education-related organizations, including teacher and other school employee unions, principal and administrator associations, the Utah PTA, the Utah School Employees Association and also the NAACP. The group claims that the Choice in Education Act was passed by the Utah Legislature with little opportunity for public input.

The group’s Web site also says the voucher plan is too expensive and that vouchers have not been proven to improve student achievement. "Voters should decide whether or not to move forward on the voucher proposal. Our petition will place the subject on the ballot in the form of a referendum. We will be asking Utah citizens to vote "Yes!" to public schools and "Yes!" to overturning the voucher law," the Web site says. As of late April, the group said it believed it had collected enough signatures to force a referendum.

The school choice effort was led by Parents for Choice in Education, based in Salt Lake City. Utah Gov. John Huntsman Jr. signed the bill into law in February, after it passed by one vote in the Utah House of Representatives, 38-37, earlier that month.

School choice groups immediately praised the bill as one of the most far-reaching and significant of its kind.

"The victory last night proves that in the end freedom always trumps fear," said Robert C. Enlow, executive director and COO of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, shortly after the governor’s signing.

While other states have school choice programs, most are aimed at specific groups, such as low-income families, special needs students or students in failing schools. In Arizona, for example, the state pays for scholarships for foster children and disabled children to attend the schools of the families’ choosing, public or private.

The Parents for Choice group is now mounting a second campaign, this one aimed at countering the referendum. Even if the matter does go to a statewide vote, "we believe we will win the election on the merits of the issue," spokeswoman Nancy Pomeroy told The Salt Lake Tribune in late April.

Utahns for Public Schools argues that most vouchers would go to families who would have chosen private schools anyway, so the plan will not save money for public schools or ease overcrowding.

Parents for Choice and Utahns for Public Schools disagree over the financial impact the voucher plan will have on the state’s budget. Money for the vouchers will come from Utah’s general fund, not from its Uniform School Fund or from local property taxes. Estimates are that the average voucher will be $2,000; the state has set aside $9.2 million for the program apart from the $3.5 billion appropriated for public school education for 2007-2008. Since the state spends an average $7,500 per child in public schools now, it would save money on every child who uses a voucher, the Choice group explains.