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Voucher foes hit bricks for repeal

Published March 3, 2007 1:10 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A group hoping voters will repeal Utah's school voucher law received its petition sheets Friday and will start collecting signatures this weekend.

It needs to amass 92,000 signatures from 15 counties by April 10 to place the issue on a ballot.

The difficult process of getting a voter referendum on the ballot hasn't succeeded in more than 30 years. And the high failure rate of voter initiatives suggests Utahns are reluctant to legislate from the ballot box.

Advocates of an initiative - which lets voters pass or suggest a new law - have one year to gather enough signatures. But people pushing a referendum - which lets voters repeal a new law - have just 40 days.

The group calling itself Utahns for Public Schools isn't dissuaded. By mobilizing their member groups - including the Utah PTA and Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union- organizers are confident public school supporters and voucher opponents can propel them to victory.

One veteran of such efforts agrees.

"When you have the Utah Education Association and the Parent-Teacher Association, that's a mighty big army," said Merrill Cook, who led three voter initiative efforts in the past 20 years. "I have no doubt if they really put their mind to it, even within a month, they could get that on the ballot."

Cook landed three separate initiatives on Utah ballots, but each was ultimately rejected by voters. In fact, his first attempt was a 1988 initiative to create an income tax credit for private education, a cousin to the school voucher movement. Voters rejected the proposal by a whopping 70 percent.

Last month the Utah Legislature passed a bill that will give parents private school vouchers - public tax dollars they can put toward private school tuition. Supporters say vouchers trigger market forces and efficiency that could improve the entire education system. Opponents don't want public funds spent on private and parochial schools that are subject to less accountability.

The law is less than three weeks old and opponents want voters to pull it off the books. But winning support of the voters is only half the battle. Most issues don't even make it to the ballot because of high petition hurdles.

"I can tell you in each one of those three initiative drives it was very, very difficult," Cook said. "A referendum is even more difficult."

The last successful referendum push was a 1974 effort to overturn Utah's Land Use Act, according to the Office of the Lieutenant Governor. The issue made the ballot, but didn't pass. And Utah voters have rejected all but four of the 17 ballot initiatives put before them since 1960, according to the elections office.

So if voucher opponents muster enough signatures to win a spot on the ballot, they can expect a costly campaign leading up to the election.

Cook estimates he and his opponents spent a combined total of perhaps $500,000 on each initiative campaign. He predicted a voucher vote will cost many times that much.

Utahns for Public Schools has formed a Political Issue Committee (PIC) to advocate and raise money for their cause, said Janet Jenson, the group's attorney. The PIC will be rivaled by Parents for Choice in Education, a pro-voucher Political Action Committee funded largely by out-of-state donors.

Experts expect national players to influence both sides of a referendum campaign. Utah's voucher law is the country's broadest, and its passage drew the interest of national groups on all sides of the "school choice" debate.

"I assume the reason to push this [referendum] is for its national implications," said Matthew Burbank, a political scientist at the University of Utah, who suspects the National Education Association will get involved. "My guess is there has got to be some national push here."

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* Tribune reporter MATT CANHAM contributed to this report.

Inside, online

* The ballot issue process at a glance. B3

* Organizers of a referendum petition to repeal Utah's voucher law have a Web site at www .utahnsforpublicschools.org.