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Utah Voters Want Election on School Voucher Law




More than 130,000 Utahns signed petitions to put private school tuition vouchers up for a vote of the people, according to Utahns for Public Schools. Utahns for Public Schools submitted nearly 30% more signatures than the 92,500 needed to qualify, and public education advocates believe that additional signatures will be submitted in the counties that are not included in the official tally.

"This is an unprecedented outpouring of support for public education," said Pat Rusk, a fourth grade teacher. "When we began, the experts told us we would never be successful in an all volunteer effort. Sometimes the experts are wrong."

Carmen Snow, president of the Utah PTA, echoed Rusk's comments saying, "In all my years, I have seen nothing to match the passion and energy that parents brought to this signature drive.

"We have had people who have never been involved in this type of process before," she added. "Their combined efforts have truly made a difference. For me, it was inspiring."

Hundreds Joined in All-Volunteer Effort

Hundreds of volunteers spent thousands of hours to collect signatures to allow Utahns to reconsider the private school tuition voucher legislation that passed  the House of Representatives by one vote last session.

An Associated Press story in the Santa Fe New Mexican explained :

Utah lawmakers in February approved the only universal voucher program in the country. Even affluent families qualify. Vouchers in other states are targeted at low-income families or students attending poorly performing schools.

Utah will give parents $500 to $3,000, depending on income, for each child they want to send to a private school. The program is supposed to start by fall. Kids already in private schools wouldn't qualify.

Rusk estimated that the referendum drive will meet the requirements of 10 percent of voters in the past gubernatorial election -- both the 92,500 statewide and 10 percent in each of 15 counties.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported, "Once county clerks certify how many petition signatures belong to registered voters, the Lt. Governor's Office has until April 30 to count the valid signatures. If it rules the petition sufficient, Gov. Jon Huntsman will set an election date for the public to vote on a repeal."

Kim Burningham, chair of the Utah State Board of Education, said it has been "inspiring to see so many parents and community members get involved in doing something to make public schools better."

"We all understand the importance of political involvement in education," Burningham said. "The collection of signatures for this referendum has been another dimension of the importance of parental involvement."

Volunteer Group Will 'Continue Conversation' on Making Schools Better

"We believe the best hope for equal opportunity is to sustain and improve the public schools attended by 96% of Utah students," said Jeanetta Williams, president of the Utah NAACP. "Private school tuition vouchers, by definition, erode support for public schools. We can't allow that to happen here."

Rusk said that Utahns for Public Schools will take steps to continue the conversation about how to make public schools better while counties work to review and verify signatures on the petition.

"We know we will face some daunting challenges when this measure gets to the ballot," Rusk said. "In media alone, for example, we have been outspent $200,000 to zero in the past two weeks.

"I believe the success we've had -- and the huge outpouring of public support from Utahns -- can continue to overcome out-of-state money and organizations who are working to continue this education experiment using Utah's students."


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