Utah Rejects School Vouchers
Utah voters delivered a loud, strong message on Nov. 6, 2007 that they want their tax dollars reinvested in public schools, not private school tuition vouchers. By a 62% to 38% margin, Utahns rejected Referendum 1. Voter approval would have confirmed a law passed by the legislature last year to create the most comprehensive education voucher program in the nation.
"Utahns today made history," declared Kim Campbell, president of the Utah Education Association (UEA), "and sent a clear message: We believe in our public schools and want them supported." Campbell also said that, with the Referendum 1 now in the past, UEA now looks forward to working with the legislature on a pro-public education agenda that invests in smaller class sizes, more teachers and better learning resources.
The Utah referendum is the eighth statewide election regarding private school voucher measures since 1972 and voters have convincingly rejected the proposition all eight times.
Indicating the vote may signal more trouble to come for Republican pro-voucher politicians, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke reported in an analysis published Nov. 14, "Not only did the voucher plan fail in every one of Utah's 29 counties, but an analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune shows it failed in nearly every district represented by the most ardent supporters of the voucher movement, in some cases by resounding margins."
Republican and Democratic state leaders have said the issue will not come up again in 2008 -- or the foreseeable future.
The Tribune's Gehrke reported that GOP House Speaker Greg Curtis, a voucher supporter, said, "'…we are going to do nothing [more] on vouchers. This is a done issue. It will not be debated next session.' Curtis also is reported as saying that in fact, the anti-voucher Utah Education Association 'ought to thank me. We've brought some finality to this issue.'"
The vote followed months of a fierce public battle, energized by the historic efforts of an army of volunteers, part of a coalition known as Utahns for Public Schools, who educated the public about the flawed voucher law and gathered enough signatures - more than 124,000 in all -- to put the Referendum 1 on the ballot. It had been 33 years since anyone succeeded in getting a referendum on the ballot in Utah.
Legislative Research and General Counsel estimated that, over a 13 year period, the bill would have cost taxpayers $429 million.
Here's more on the election results as reported in the UEA Update:
"With the eyes of the nation upon us, Utah voters today made history by rejecting the flawed voucher law," UEA President Kim Campbell said during an election night victory party in Salt Lake City. "Utahns have sent a clear message: We believe in our public schools and want them supported. We want to ensure Utah's future economic development with a highly-educated workforce," Campbell said. "We want our state resources focused on our public schools in order to meet the needs of all children."
Voucher proponent Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com who poured millions of his personal fortune into the campaign, told news reporters Tuesday night that he felt the referendum was a "statewide IQ test" and that Utah voters had failed. He also accused Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., who signed the voucher legislation into law, of being "missing in action" after polls showed the referendum would likely be defeated.
Pro-voucher supporters resorted to a myriad of dirty tricks during the campaign - everything from attacking teacher organizations like the National Education Association, to spamming e-mails which directed anti-voucher voters to pro-voucher websites, to a vote-buying scheme that caught the attention of more than one media outlet.
But in the end, the message the antivoucher Utahns for Public Schools coalition pushed in every community -- that investing in public schools ought to be the state's number one priority -- resonated with voters throughout the state. On election day, the referendum failed in every single Utah county.
The Utah Legislature passed HB 148 by a one-vote majority last February. Recognizing some of the flaws in the voucher program, the Legislature attempted to fix the legislation with a second bill, HB 174. Provoucher supporters argued that HB 174 could stand on its own regardless of what happened with HB 148, but the Utah Supreme Court ruled that if Utahns were to defeat vouchers in November, HB 174 would be defeated as well.
"Our work does not end here," Campbell said on election night. "We have much left to do to reduce overcrowding in Utah's classrooms, to involve parents more as partners . . . and to make sure there is a well prepared, quality teacher in every Utah classroom."