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Utah's school voucher referendum decision has escalated into a $2.6 million battle, with most of the cash being raised and spent by voucher opponents.

With less than two months before the referendum election Nov. 6, voucher supporters, led by Parents for Choice in Education, have spent more than $500,000 - $128,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to stop a citizens' referendum petition drive against the measure.

The figures come from financial reports Monday to the Lieutenant Governor's Office. The money is going into a blitz of radio and television advertisements.

Utah's voucher program, which was narrowly approved by the 2007 Legislature, needs a 'yes' vote from a majority of Utah voters. If it survives, the state program would become the most extensive voucher system in the nation. It would offer private-tuition grants to families at all income levels.

Much of the money, for and against the program, is pouring in from outside Utah.

"That's not surprising," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Monday. "If this issue didn't have national ramifications, it wouldn't have people [in other states] weighing in."

The National Education Association reported Friday that it has donated $1.5 million in the past three weeks to its Utah affiliate to use in fighting vouchers. Union officials would not confirm reports that the NEA is prepared to spend twice that amount if necessary.

The Utah Education Association also received small donations from teacher unions in Wyoming, Colorado, Ohio and Maine.

Absent from the fray, so far, is the national pro-voucher group All Children Matter, which spent $240,000 in Utah elections last year to elect legislators who favor vouchers. That national group reported spending "zero" on the Utah referendum.

A pivotal local contributor to the voucher effort is Utah entrepreneur Patrick Byrne. The founder and head of has pumped $290,000 into the "yes" effort. Byrne has single-handedly financed a Republican legislators' PAC, Informed Voter Project, with a $200,000 donation.

Voucher supporters say the Utah program would help low- and middle-income families - who, depending on income, could qualify for as much as a $3,000 annual grant - afford a private education. The program would not siphon off state public education funds and would shield the public system from the loss of student spending units, they say.

Ultimately, proponents say, the competition provided by private schools would force improvements in public education.

But opponents, including the Utah Education Association and the umbrella anti-voucher group, Utahns for Public Schools, argue the state's public schools, which receive the lowest per-pupil spending in the nation, should be adequately funded before any public money goes to vouchers.

Besides, they say, the proposed program's meager $3,000 maximum subsidy would cover only a fraction of most private-school tuitions. Worse, because the program has no income ceiling for vouchers, they fear it could wind up merely subsidizing wealthy families' private-school students.

Voucher math
The money trail (so far) of Utah's voucher referendum:

* TOTAL RAISED: $2.6 million

Pro-voucher side: $800,000

Anti-voucher side: $1.8 million

* TOTAL SPENT: $2 million

Pro-voucher side: $500,000

Anti-voucher side: $1.5 million

Sources: The Utah Foundation, The State Office of Education, U.S. Department of Education, campaign disclosures.

If all the money spent on the referendum campaign so far went directly to the classroom, it would have:

* Paid to educate 380 Utah public school students;

* OR covered the annual costs of 17 average-sized classrooms;

* OR funded a year's education, with plenty left over, of all 310 students enrolled last year in the Piute School District.

* OR provided 1,143 private-school vouchers, with a mean value of $1,750.

Sources: The Utah Foundation, The State Office of Education, U.S. Department of Education, and campaign disclosures.