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For the one-third of Utahns who staunchly support education vouchers, parental "choice" is the driving force - not helping low-income families, the more idealistic reason the movement's leaders hammered home.

"It has always been a major theme of the voucher movement, that vouchers are a way out for minority and poor kids," says Hoover Institute fellow Terry Moe, a long-time researcher on vouchers.

Instead, a new Tribune poll found that a mere 6 percent of Utahns cited helping poor students as the reason they support vouchers.

Beyond finding that an overwhelming majority of likely voters would cast their ballots "against" vouchers in Tuesday's referendum, the Tribune poll uncovered intriguing details on how Utahns view tax subsidies for private schools.

Voucher opponents, for instance, are motivated primarily by fear that vouchers would drain money from public schools. About one in five anti-voucher respondents cited vouchers creating an "elitist" education system as their main reason to oppose the program.

Somewhat surprising, only 8 percent worry about the constitutional issue of using taxpayers' money to support religion-based schools. "This is really an issue that the liberal elites care about a lot," says Moe. "But they are way out of step with ordinary people who don't really care about the religion issue."

Leaders of the voucher movement, including founder Patrick Byrne, Parents for Choice in Education spokeswoman Leah Barker, and Sutherland Institute Director Paul Mero, have emphasized in debates that the most important purpose for vouchers is to give low-income and minority families an option to failing urban public schools.

The demographic facts are hard to argue: Public schools in affluent neighborhoods tend to have significantly higher academic achievement, higher graduation rates and fewer social problems. The better trained and more experienced teachers migrate to schools in more affluent neighborhoods.

Several Latino leaders (about 13 percent of Utahns are Latino) have rallied behind vouchers, saying their community would embrace them as a path to better education opportunity. Barker runs Children First Utah, a scholarship program that helps low-income students go to private schools. "We have 2,000 families on our waiting list," she says.

In a debate at the University of Utah, Byrne said poor families "understand their way out of poverty is to get a better education for their children." Because they are trapped within the inequities of the public system, only vouchers can help their children escape, he says.

A study by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation says, "This means private schools have the potential to mitigate the effects of residential segregation in a way public schools cannot. . . ."

As Mero explained the plan to an all-white audience in Orem, the voucher program "is not about you. It's about them. It's about helping these struggling kids. They are the ones who don't make it like your kids."

Byrne, who contributed most of the pro-voucher campaign's money, went as far as arguing the public education system, with its ideal of homogenizing immigrants into "American" life, is "absolutely founded in bigotry toward minorities."

Lisa Johnson, spokeswoman for Utahns for Public Schools, counters those arguments, saying Utah's voucher plan, which offers a maximum of $3,000 toward private tuition, is too little to really help low-income families. "For many families in Utah, vouchers would be a false hope, a false promise and a false opportunity," she said.

According to the Tribune poll, leaders on both sides of the issue could have saved their breath - only a tiny fraction of those who said they would vote for the program listed helping low-income students as the reason.

On the other hand, two out of three respondents said they support vouchers because "parents deserve more choice in guiding the education of their children."

About a quarter of those who would vote for vouchers supported the program because the public school system is "broken."

Moe says the disparity between voucher leaders and their followers could reflect Utah's bedrock political conservatism and its demographics. "These things will vary from state to state, depending on the political culture of the state," Moe said. "Utah doesn't have serious concentrated poverty problems. Voters may not be able to relate to those circumstances."

Mero expected "choice" to be the highest priority of pro-voucher respondents because any random sample, he says, will turn up a preponderance of white Mormons, with middle to high incomes, whose children are doing just fine in the public system. "These are people who love Utah's public schools."

That is the group that must be won over for vouchers to be implemented, he said.

"That is our target audience. We knew we had to make it a matter of the heart, as well as self-interest," Mero says. "I'm looking into white faces and I'm saying, 'I know it's not your problem, but you need to know it's a problem to those people over there. Have a heart.' ''

Utahns were asked to describe the public school system's quality as excellent, good, only fair, poor or undecided.

Two out of three Utahns say the public schools are "good" or "excellent." The rest said it was only fair or poor. (Slightly more Republicans than Democrats rated the public system as satisfactory.)

The worst grades for public schools were given by non-Mormons, with fully one-half rating them as "only fair" or "poor." Because only one-quarter of the 625 likely voters interviewed were non-Mormons, the margin of error was somewhat higher.

Doug Holmes, a pro-voucher leader and contributor, says affection for public education is hard-wired into Americans from the time they enter school. "We think America was built on the public education system," Holmes says. "People associate public schools with motherhood, apple pie and freedom."

Public education is a fairly recent concept, Holmes says. "For the first hundred years, Americans had a very different approach to education."