DRAPER - A leader in Utah's push for educational vouchers told a town meeting Saturday that if the proposal fails in its Nov. 6 referendum, it's unlikely it will be revived in the near future.
"If this referendum fails," said Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, chairman of the House Education Committee, "I don't think you'll see another bill like this. Maybe a pilot program."
Hughes, who was speaking at one of the so-called town meetings he has been leading around the state, again faced a tough room at Draper City Hall. Several voucher opponents joined the crowd of about 30 citizens. Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, who also represents the area and supports vouchers, did not show.
Hughes pointed out that if the proposal should win the vote, he doubted its opponents would as readily bow to "the people's voice."
"It will be challenged in court," he said.
Hughes said a defeat of vouchers that is driven primarily by Salt Lake City's high turnout for its heated mayoral election, would not necessarily indicate the idea is unpopular statewide.
"This state is not 60 percent Democratic," he said, referring to a recent poll that indicates 60 percent of voters say they would vote down vouchers.
But several at the meeting, including former Democratic House member Trisha Beck, challenged Hughes' statement the bill is opposed primarily by Democrats. She said later that Salt Lake's turnout will likely have a marginal effect on the referendum. The important opposition is coming from Republicans, many of whom are public schoolteachers.
Michelle Johnson, a teacher in training, told Hughes she was worried about the quality of new private schools that he said would follow the vouchers. She asked Hughes if districts could find themselves trying to reabsorb students fleeing startup private schools that failed financially or produced poor test scores.
"Potentially," Hughes said, which was greeted with laughter.
"You're going to have schools popping up everywhere, playing havoc with the public schools," Johnson said.
The districts will be changing the way they count students, Hughes said, and that should solve any funding problems over uncounted returning students.
Then, Hughes challenged his critics to come up with a solution to the state's problem of overcrowded, underfunded classrooms.
"If it's not vouchers - then what?" Hughes asked. "Is it a tax increase?"
Beck said the answer was increasing overall spending on public schools.
The Legislature put a record cash infusion into the schools last year but still remains at the bottom for per-pupil spending and teacher pay, Hughes said.
Other audience members suggested the economic growth that would accompany any population expansion would "self-fund" the larger student population.
But Hughes said tax income will never keep up with the cost of educating the influx of children.
"Vouchers will never be the silver bullet," Hughes said. The program only would cost about $12 million out of a $4 billion education budget. "If it fails, it was at least a reform worth trying."
* Past coverage of the voucher debate is at www.sltrib .com/education