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Supporters of Utah's school voucher program could be tripped up by some tough math and basic human nature in November's referendum election, according to political scientists.

But neither the pro- nor anti-voucher sides want to discuss the probability of defeat for the measure because doing so could affect the turnout of their supporters. In the end, several factors are conspiring against Utah becoming home to the most extensive voucher program in the nation. They include demographics and human nature.

"If I had to guess what will happen," says Brigham Young University professor Quin Monson, "my guess would be that it will be defeated."

It's probably unfortunate for Utah that if the voucher program does go down, it likely won't be on its merits or even on the inflammatory rhetoric for and against. Instead, it could die simply because voters won't take the time to overcome any doubts about a complicated issue. Political consultants who craft campaign ads know that when voters are uncertain about an issue presented to them as a "yes" or "no" decision, they vote no.

"You've got this big, undecided group in the middle that hasn't given this a lot of thought," Monson explains. "You've got to show them the public education system is broken. That's a hard sale. It's easier to be on the 'no' side. You just need to paint the voucher scheme as too risky, too many uncertainties."

Nurturing doubt

The Utah Legislature narrowly passed the voucher program this year. But it was challenged in a successful petition campaign and will need a majority of "yes" votes in a Nov. 6 referendum election.

To reinstate the challenged program, supporters led by Parents for Choice in Education must not only educate but convince a majority of the electorate that vouchers are good for Utah schoolchildren.

On the other hand, voucher opponents, led by Utahns For Public Schools and its teacher union supporters, need only introduce doubt into the voters' minds.

It's no surprise the opponents' media campaign emphasizes allegations that the program "raises a lot of troubling questions" and is "flawed."

The Utah Education Association's Vik Arnold acknowledges, "We were relieved when we heard the anti-voucher side has the 'no' vote."

If the challenge is voter education on a complex issue, the solution is straightforward: "You've got to have a lot of money to buy a really convincing public education program," Monson says.

But as the pro-voucher side throws more cash and energy into TV, radio ads, direct mail and walking neighborhoods, the anti-voucher side, with its built-in "no" vote advantage, merely has to keep pace. And with the national implications of a statewide voucher program, even in Utah, Monson says: "It's unlikely the proponents are going to outspend the opponents. The stakes are just too high for the opponents. They are going to match or exceed it."

So far the anti-voucher side has raised $1.8 million compared to $800,000 for the pro side. The biggest single source of funding against vouchers has been the National Education Association, which has given its Utah affiliate $1.5 million and may provide more.

Terry Moe, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a voucher supporter, believes voucher programs are doomed to failure at the ballot box. In Michigan and California, opponents crushed well-funded voucher initiatives by overwhelming margins.

"It's too easy for an opponent to wade in and raise doubt," Moe says.

The best hope for voucher programs is through legislative action because it requires selling vouchers only to a relatively small number of lawmakers.

"The best the voucher supporters can do is to spend a lot of money [on advertising]," Moe says. "Otherwise, they are sunk."

Free market lite

Moe has scrutinized much of the polling and public surveys done on voucher attitudes over the past decade and has uncovered patterns. Though Americans are inconsistent in how they view vouchers - making public opinion difficult to nail down - he has arrived at some insights, including:

* Most Americans think private schools offer a superior education.

* A little more than half of respondents would send their kids to a private school if they could afford it.

* They find public education inequitable, with people in low-income neighborhoods at a disadvantage.

* They feel parents have too little influence on their children's education.

* Many would like their children taught moral values.

* Yet most Americans are reasonably satisfied with the performance of the public system and feel good about its ideals of nurturing citizenship. "Americans like public schools," he says.

* They react negatively to attacks on public education.

* Though many would accept vouchers, most think vouchers should be offered to low-income families first.

* Voters think that private schools receiving vouchers should be held to accountability standards and some basic regulation by the state.

When you pull it all together, Moe says, a voucher program with the best chance of success with this huge, somewhat confused group must have characteristics that "free marketers are going to have a nervous breakdown over."

For instance, a successful voucher approach would be aimed at low-income families and include government regulation. The Utah program includes basic oversight, including regular audits, and Utah voucher supporters argue the market would further regulate private schools because parents would choose the best and most efficiently managed schools for their kids.

But, Moe says, most Americans don't place much confidence in the market. "We should treat vouchers like any other government economic program," he says. "You can't leave everything up to the market."

Meanwhile, the anti-voucher ads are aimed at expanding that doubt.

Yet more challenges

Beyond the voter psychology working against a "yes" voucher vote, Utah's demographics in the November referendum may not be salutary, even according to pro-voucher political consultants.

Salt Lake City, a center of voucher opposition, has one of the few high-profile elections -the mayoral - that will draw voters to the polls. Meanwhile, Utah's politically conservative rural counties may also weigh in against the issue because they have few private schools - and public school districts are often a major employer.

Finally, Utah's 18,000 UEA members are overwhelmingly anti-voucher and mobilized.

But Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute, argues the turnout for Salt Lake City's municipal election will be "chump change" in the total required to decide the voucher question. But the decision, he concedes, will be made by 60 percent of the turnout that will be dominated by middle- and upper-income Mormons, "who love public schools," he acknowledges.

Moe says that even with compromises of free-market ideals, getting a "yes" referendum vote is a challenge. Worse, getting a "no" vote could set Utah's voucher movement back, he says. Lawmakers would remember that any bill they supported has a chance of being forced into a referendum, where a few carefully sown doubts will kill it.

But supporters such as Mero, who as a social scientist acknowledges the uphill battle, are not discouraged. They hold out hope that Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who signed the voucher bill into law but has been "conspicuously" absent from the ensuing debate, soon will ride to the rescue, he says.

"What if he came out on radio and TV and did commercials [for vouchers]?" Mero asks. "That alone would be a wind of change and certainly could be a catalyst for more involvement money-wise, not to mention excitement."

Huntsman has publicly said he will not wade into the referendum fight.

In a recent interview, the governor said he believes a "no" referendum vote "would signal a long-term attitude against vouchers" and that no new voucher bills would emerge for several years.

In the voters' hands

* The voucher issue will be decided in the Nov. 6 election.

* A "no" vote will kill the voucher program approved by lawmakers earlier this year.

* A "yes" vote will give Utah the most comprehensive voucher program in the nation.

* This referendum will be the only statewide election issue this year. All other election questions and candidates will be local ones.