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Posted: 5:08 PM- A right-wing think tank has issued a lengthy essay on Utah's education history - warning that Mormons may have to side with the educational "choice" movement, including vouchers, or "face cultural extinction."

The Mormon-oriented Sutherland Institute's 43-page paper, written by director Paul Mero, sifts through history in an effort to define Utah's "educational identity." One of it's revelations: Public schools were introduced in Utah by federal officials to aid in stamping out the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' control of the state.

"The object was to provide a broader context, not just for the voucher debate but for education reform policy debates across the spectrum," Mero says. "The paper was written with with the hopes that we can lessen the contentiousness."

If so, the essay seems to have failed. Voucher opponents are appalled by some of the essay's statements, including Mero's assertion that public schools historically have been part of the federal government's campaign of "cultural cleansing" of minority groups, including Mormons. The public school movement was supported by the Ku Klux Klan and industrial tycoons, who he says were seeking "a pliable, semi-educated workforce."

Mero stands behind the statements as historically accurate, not just as it applies to Mormons, but to American Indians and many other minority groups. "I've just written what the history is," he says. "I'm not making stuff up."

The essay marks the controversy high point so far in the campaign leading up to a Nov. 6 referendum on vouchers. Only if a majority of Utahns vote "yes," will a voucher proposal the Legislature approved finally go into effect. It would mark the most comprehensive voucher program in the nation.

Voucher advocacy group Parents for Choice and other supporters contacted would not comment on the essay.

For many anti-voucher activists, the essay's most controversial statement is: "No honest person who has studied the historical record of Utahns prior to statehood could conclude anything other than that they would have embraced what we now call vouchers."

Voucher opponents say the essay - which the Sutherland Institute has paid to have printed in ads in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret Morning News - is an attempt to convince Mormon voters that their forbearers would want them to join the voucher cause.

"I shook my head when I read it," says Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, who is LDS and a voucher opponent. If Mero's argument is that because 19th Century Mormons relied on private schools, 21st Century Utah should provide vouchers, Allen says, "Then we should also go back to polygamy, too."

Kim Burningham, chairman of the Utah Board of Education, and a voucher opponent, says Mero's paper is at best a guess of what Utah's founders were thinking. "In the 1800s, the church and some church leaders also taught polygamy, the United Order [an experiment in communism] and blood atonement."

Harvey Kantor, chairman of the University of Utah's Department of Education, Culture and Society, says it is dangerous to try to compare historically distant societies. "He's trying to apply the practices of a 19th Century society to the concerns we have today. We are talking about two very different societies," Kantor says. "The only people that would make sense to would be fundamentalist Mormons."

Brigham Young University, owned by the LDS Church, did not respond to a request for comments on Mero's essay.

Mero says he tried to emphasize the educational beliefs Utahns hold in common and get past the historical conflicts. "We would be missing a marvelous opportunity to learn from the past about who we are as Utahns," he writes. "And we would be missing the humanity of it all, and the purpose and meaning of why education is even worth fighting over."

Burningham fears the Sutherland paper will increase rather than reduce contention. "If there's anything Utah doesn't need in the 21st Century, it's more divisiveness between Mormons and non-Mormons," Burningham says. "Our current [public education] system provides an excellent compromise - seminary . . . that allows the LDS faithful to obtain daily religious instruction."

Voucher opponent Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, says the Sutherland essay is deplorable. "It was almost sacrilegious. He's implying that somehow the church is approving of vouchers because of how they conducted school in the early days. He is trying to connect it to the Mormon religion."

The LDS Church, itself, appears determined to keep the voucher issue at arm's length. In response to questions about the Sutherland essay, church spokesman Mark N. Tuttle issued a two-sentence response: "The Church has taken no position on the issue of school vouchers. Past statements by Church leaders should not be interpreted to imply any position for or against the current issue."

"It was not meant to flush out the good Mormons and call them to the cause," Mero says of the essay. Instead it makes the point that no one "familiar with Utah's history should fear vouchers."

Frederick Buchanan, a retired U of U professor who has written extensively on the history of Utah education questions the idea that the public school system threatens Mormon culture in Utah. "That's nonsense. The public school system reinforces the LDS values at every turn."

That's one reason, Buchanan says, there are so few Mormon parochial schools.

When the federal government pushed Utah to establish public schools to replace the Mormon Church controlled system, he says, Mormon leaders decided "We'll make them our schools."

But Mero argues that despite the LDS seminaries near most high schools and the release time to attend them, Mormon values - or those of any other religion - have been mostly purged from Utah's public schools.

"If you are not allowed to express who you are as a person - freely - then you're handcuffed in your identity," he says.

Mero says he looks forward to critiques and essays being written to counter his.

"I've tried to say [to critics], "Tell me what is not factual. Tell me what is not correct and I'll address that," he says. "I'm not bashful about educational freedom, but I'm not going out of my way to invent a history that doesn't exist. What is in the essay is accurate."

To read for yourself the Sutherland Institute's take on Utah's education identity, "Vouchers, Vows and Vexations":" Target="_BLANK">

Utah's Voucher Decision

* Narrowly passed in the 2007 Legislature, faces a referendum challenge Nov. 6.

* Would award $500 to $3,000 in financial aid for every child enrolled in a private school, except those currently attending private school (low-income private school students could still get vouchers).

* The voucher program could cost $400 million to $500 million over 12 years.