"Capture the Joy of Teaching" is the official theme of this year's Utah Education Association (UEA) convention, but vouchers are the stars.
One speaker after another on Monday lambasted vouchers, urging union members to vote against Referendum 1 on Nov. 6. The cries against vouchers culminated when teachers marched along West Temple to the front of the Salt Palace Convention Center holding green anti-voucher signs.
"We are only days away from the most important election in our lifetimes," UEA President Kim Campbell told teachers before they headed out to the street. "The opposition can raise millions with a few phone calls. We have the ability to counter that with thousands of grass-roots volunteers."
Both sides will have to report their latest financial figures today. As of September, the last reporting date, the National Education Association (NEA) had donated at least $1.5 million to fight vouchers in Utah out of a total $1.8 million on the anti-voucher side. Voucher supporters had raised $800,000 as of that date, with $290,000 of that coming from Overstock.com Chief Executive Patrick Byrne.
"The difference between our donor base is that all our donors have chosen to fund a cause they believe will impact children," Parents for Choice in Education spokeswoman Leah Barker said of the comments later in the day. "The opposition can't say the same. They're collecting dues from teachers . . . and then those dues are used any which way the union wants."
But teachers at the UEA convention Monday morning seemed fervent about their cause as they gave standing ovations to many speakers.
Cards urging teachers to volunteer to work against vouchers, donation envelopes and lists of legislators who voted for and against vouchers greeted teachers Monday. Campbell urged teachers to call and thank legislators who voted against vouchers during the event. Teachers pulled out their cell phones in the audience and made the calls.
Lily Eskelsen, NEA secretary-treasurer and former UEA president, mocked the legislators who passed the voucher bills during the convention's opening remarks.
"Just when you thought politicians couldn't pass something dumber than No Child Left [Behind], along came Utah politicians proving them wrong," Eskelsen said. "This law is so fatally flawed it defies common sense."
Barker said later in the day vouchers are actually all about common sense.
"We as a society have agreed educating all our children will benefit us," Barker said. She said public schools are not meeting all students' needs, as evidenced by the 26 percent of high school seniors who didn't pass the state's high school exit exam, last school year.
"Parents cannot wait any longer," Barker said.
Utah 2008 Teacher of the Year Hal Adams, Utah State Board of Education Chairman Kim Burningham and Utah PTA President Marilyn Simister also spoke out against vouchers during a media event following Eskelsen's opening remarks.
Pro-voucher advocate and former Utah gubernatorial candidate Richard Eyre had offered in September to speak at the convention, but the UEA declined.
Several teachers in attendance said they were glad so many speakers focused on rejecting vouchers. Teachers generally attend the convention to learn more about teaching strategies. They can earn credit toward renewing their licenses by attending sessions on teaching. Though Monday morning was mostly about vouchers, 22 of the afternoon sessions focused on teaching and only one on vouchers.
"It's an excellent topic," said Mike Zito, a fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in South Salt Lake. "I think [vouchers] take money away from public education, and that's the wrong thing to do."
But not all public school teachers feel the same. Draper Elementary School first-grade teacher Britney Mendel went to the convention Monday, but only to make sure the other side of the voucher debate was heard. Mendel, who does not belong to the UEA, has spent weeks speaking to the media to show that not all public school teachers are against vouchers.
"As a public school teacher I support public schools," Mendel said. "I'm proud I'm a public school teacher, and I'm going to do everything I can to support a child who comes into my classroom, but public school isn't for everyone."
The UEA convention continues today.
* LISA SCHENCKERcan be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8999.
The following teachers were named Excellence in Teaching award recipients for 2007 at the Utah Education Association convention Monday:
* Jeffrey Bossard, Itineris Early College High School, Jordan School District
* Christine Burrows, Davis High School & Clearfield Alternative High School 3-6, Davis School District
* Pamela Butterweck, Box Elder Middle School, Box Elder School District
* Shanna Campbell, North Ogden Jr. High School, Weber School District
* Mary Emett, Fossil Ridge Intermediate School, Washington County School District
* Pyper Garff, William Penn Elementary School, Granite School District
* Sandy Hayes, South Summit Elementary School, South Summit School District
* Joan McLaughlin, Willow Canyon Elementary School, Jordan School District
* Shelle Oliver, Gunnison Valley Elementary School, South Sanpete School District
* Rhondalee Paskins, Granger High School, Granite School District
The following won the UEA Honor Roll Awards for service to education:
* Voucher opponents Lisa and Craig Johnson
* Educators Mutual Insurance Association
The following won the Charles E. Bennett UEA Human and Civil Rights Award for 2007:
* Kilo Zamora, executive director of the Inclusion Center for Communities and Justice, Salt Lake City