This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated.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.
Utah's elected officials have spoken, but now voters may get to weigh in on school vouchers.
A coalition of public education advocates on Thursday filed a referendum petition in an attempt to recall Utah's new voucher law, which creates the nation's most comprehensive school voucher program by making vouchers available to all families who do not currently have children in private schools.
The group has 40 days to scrape together nearly 92,000 signatures from all corners of the state to get the issue before voters.
Voucher supporters say bring it on.
"To some degree, I think it is exciting to lay it out in front of the people," said Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, who sponsored the voucher bill that Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. quickly signed into law. "I think the people will support this."
The "school choice" movement, which centers on letting parents spend tax dollars to pay part of their children's private school tuition, has polarized Utah and the nation. Arguments range from the economic to the philosophical. Supporters say school vouchers trigger market forces and efficiency that could improve the entire system. Opponents don't want public funds spent on private and parochial schools that are subject to less accountability.
Education coalition members have been discussing how to challenge the voucher law ever since it squeaked through the Utah House by one vote last month. The group is still mulling a legal challenge but focused first on the voter referendum because of its strict deadlines.
"We had a very short timeline to make some very big decisions," said Pat Rusk, a fourth-grade teacher and past president of the Utah Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. "We looked at the referendum and thought anything that has such an enormous fiscal, educational and social impact . . . is exactly the kind of issue that ought to go to the voters."
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.
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.
"Our experience suggests the Parents for Choice organization will send in all sorts of money," said state school board Chairman Kim Burningham, who isn't representing the board on the petition.
Rusk said petitioners can counter "deep pockets" with grass-root efforts.
"The people in this [petition] group represent thousands and thousands of people," she said.
The petitioners will need them. The Legislature has purposefully made it difficult to recall a law. Getting a referendum on the ballot takes the signatures of 10 percent of all the votes cast for governor in the last general election, or about 92,000.
And that 10 percent threshold must be reached in 15 of the state's 29 counties.
If the petitioners get enough signatures, Huntsman will set the referendum before voters.
And the state could not issue a voucher until voters decide to keep or reject the law.
Legislators who backed the voucher proposal assume the group will get the issue on a ballot, but say they are not worried about the outcome and promised no retribution in future legislative sessions.
Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble called the petition "a bit strange" in light of the record $500 million the Legislature appropriated in new funding for public schools.
Parents for Choice spokeswoman Nancy Pomeroy framed any vote as a fight between parents and bureaucrats.
But Holladay Democratic Rep. Carol Spackman Moss countered that voucher supporters are a special interest that has ignored public sentiment.
"I have never thought these vouchers are supported by the general public," she said.
A Salt Lake Tribune poll conducted in early January found that a majority of Utahns are against vouchers.