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Public Education Group Seeks Referendum on Utah Vouchers

Supporters of public education in Utah have responded to a new statewide private school voucher law by launching a petition drive aimed at allowing voters to decide the issue in a statewide election.

The petition drive is not the only obstacle facing the new law. Even as the Utah Board of Education prepared to adopt the rules it will use to implement the law and the petition drive moved into high gear, a Republican state senator told the Senate, "We may have a flawed voucher bill."

Legislation establishing the voucher plan passed the Utah House in February by a single vote. The experimental legislation was quickly passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor. The program is projected to cost taxpayers $429 million over the next 13 years, according to legislative fiscal analysts.

Utahns for Public Schools, a broad-based organization representing parents, teachers and other concerned citizens, filed a referendum application March 1 in an effort to overturn the private school tuition voucher law. The group is busy collecting the 95,000 signatures necessary to place a referendum on the ballot.

The Parents for Choice in Education Act provides Utah families a private school tuition voucher ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student, scaled to income based on who qualifies for federal reduced-price school lunch, according to the Deseret Morning News.

According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune , what some senators are now describing as a "flaw" is a three-line provision that requires schools receiving voucher money to have enough cash or liquid commodities on hand to pay nearly three month's worth of bills. The requirement is intended to guarantee that schools don't shut their doors in the middle of an academic year.

"Polls show that private school tuition vouchers have very little public support," said Pat Rusk, fourth grade teacher at Willow Canyon Elementary. "Voters should have a chance to decide whether to embark on an experiment with such great fiscal, educational, and social consequences."

Former state superintendent of instruction Steve Laing expressed concerns about the law's capacity to erode support for public schools and fragment society along religious, racial and ethnic, and socio-economic lines.

"Vouchers make no sense for Utah parents," said PTA education commissioner Marilyn Kofford. "We have the highest percentage of public school enrollment in the nation. And we have strong public schools, with the highest graduation rate in the nation."

Kofford pointed out that parents would have very few real private school choices in a voucher system. "Private schools choose the students they want and don't want," Kofford said.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported on March 2, "Other referendum sponsors include a former legislator and leaders of the Utah PTA, the Utah State Board of Education, the Utah School Boards Association and the NAACP."

According to the newspaper, "The petitioners hope the long arms of these groups will be able to counter the deep pockets of Parents for Choice in Education, which sank roughly $500,000 into political campaigns for voucher supporters last year."

The Tribune quoted state school board Chairman Kim Burningham as saying, "Our experience suggests the Parents for Choice organization will send in all sorts of money." Burningham isn't representing the board in the petition effort.

Burningham also cautioned Utah taxpayers about doling out publicly funded vouchers to private schools that are not subject to any significant accountability or regulation. Newly formed private schools in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida operated for years despite findings of educational and financial waste, fraud, and abuse.

For more information on private school voucher scandals in Florida, see the Palm Beach Post's archive of news stories  and the St. Petersburg Times editorial, "A voucher marketplace."  

March 2007



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