It’s not clear who will win in the bloody vouchers war going on in Utah — it’s only clear that, once again, public education, students and teachers, lose.
Utah’s legislature, a bastion of Republican conservatism in the last decade or so, passed a voucher bill in its just-ended regular session. Conservative legislature, conservative governor — a law authorizing vouchers is what should be expected these days, no? What the advocates of vouchers failed to take into account has made this quite a drama.
Utah’s voters don’t like vouchers much, but love their public schools a lot.
So, the Utah state board of education opposed the measure. A hint of graft in existing alternatives to public schools angered many citizens. Opponents pointed to, among other things, the possibility that vouchers would vacuum funding from public schools — Utah is already dead last in per-pupil spending in the U.S.
It’s turned into a real donneybrook. [Bloody details below the fold.]
Utah citizens started a petition to get a referendum to dump the law. The petition gathered a record number of signatures, far exceeding the number needed to get an election. The election is scheduled for November.
The legislature then went back and passed an amendment to the proposed voucher law, by a two-thirds majority, which means the second law cannot be submitted to a referendum.
So, Utah citizens, opposing a voucher law the legislature passed, have a referendum to reject the voucher law; the legislature, to frustrate opposition, passed a second law that citizens cannot strike down; language for the ballot measure appears to be slanted against the citizen groups. Still with us?
Today we see the parties heading to court to litigate even before the vote.
Confusion surrounds a November vote on the state’s private school voucher program despite actions taken Thursday by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and legislative leaders meant to clarify the situation.
If anything, things got muddier.
The leaders released a joint statement but don’t agree on its meaning. Key legislators filed a lawsuit that would turn the ballot question on its head.
Neither effort answers the question at the core of this highly political fight: If voters approve the referendum, does that kill the voucher program?
The answer may come from the only other branch of the government: the courts.
The referendum aims to repeal one voucher law, but another that accidentally re-enacted major portions of the first one would remain on the books. Some say that second law can be used to give parents state money to help defray the cost of private school tuition. Others don’t. And everyone, including Huntsman, expects the courts to play a big part in sorting it all out.
“Oh man, it’s such a mess,” Senate President John Valentine said.
I hereby nominate John Valentine for the Understatement of the Year award.
Parents for Choice in Education; Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo; Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George; and a few parents sued the Legislative Research and General Counsel, which wrote the ballot title, and the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. The lawsuit asks the Utah Supreme Court to revise the ballot title to clarify what the public will be voting on.
Here is the text of the referendum as it is to appear on the ballot; notice that vouchers are called “scholarships,” and you can begin to see why the fight is already headed to the courts:
Ballot title prepared by the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel:
Citizens’ State Referendum Number 1
In February 2007, the Utah Legislature passed H.B. 148, Education Vouchers. This bill will take effect only if approved by voters. The bill:
Establishes a scholarship program for:
* Qualifying school-age children who newly enroll in eligible private
* Lower income school-age children who continue their enrollment in eligible private schools; and
* Provides for scholarships within that program of $500 to $3,000, depending on family size and income, increasing those scholarship amounts in future years; and
* Allows school districts to retain some per-student funding for scholarship students who transfer to private schools.
Deseret Morning News politics editor Bob Bernick wrote a column that explains some of these confusing actions — politicians have a lot of material to use to cover their tails:
• First, joining the lawsuit, the GOP lawmakers are clearly telling Huntsman not to call a special legislative session to try to “fix” the two-voucher law problem. (Huntsman says he won’t call such a session, saying there is “not the political will” to act on vouchers now.)
• Second, the lawsuit gives Huntsman cover to duck the difficult voucher issue. He can say it is inappropriate for him and legislators to try to deal with the voucher mess in a special session when the matter is before the courts.
• Third, it takes a critical political argument away from Democrats and the public education community, who oppose vouchers.
• Fourth, a court action may well stall for time. If there is no court ruling before the Nov. 6 vote, then pro-voucher groups can make the public argument that citizens should vote “no” on the ballot to allow the courts time to rule on the controversial subject.
• Finally, a court may actually side with the pro-voucher argument, and the Nov. 6 vote may be postponed or the ballot language rewritten to say that the vote is not binding on Utah lawmakers.
Considering that most public opinion polls over time show more Utahns oppose vouchers than favor them, the pro-voucher advocates have little to lose legally over this new lawsuit. But the real advantage of this lawsuit is political.
Education reform advocates have a right to be concerned. When legal and legislative maneuvers get so far out of hand, the schools always lose, the students lose, teachers get a collective black eye — and rarely does anything change for the better.
Vouchers in Utah do not make a lot of sense. Utah’s educational system is overhwelmingly public — when I grew up in Utah County, the second or third largest in the state at various points — the private schools were closing down. Brigham Young University closed its laboratory school, Brigham Young Academy, and St. Francis High School, a Catholic school, was closed (my recollection is the earlier grades remained). Most of the land area of Utah had population densities so light that it was unreasonable to try to make any private school work. Much of the public school budget was spent on busing, with students in some places riding nearly 100 miles one-way, everyday, to get to school. (San Juan County was so big, and so difficult to get to by road, that it had two county seats, so people could reasonably conduct county business in one day).
While Utah is home to the largest private university in the U.S., Brigham Young University in Provo, it also has the oldest state university west of the Missouri — the University of Utah traces its founding to 1850, when Brigham Young himself established the University of Deseret. With three sizable, well-reputed state universities back in the 1970s — Utah, Utah State University in Logan, and Weber State University in Ogden — Utah has grown in population and added to the state system. The former College of Southern Utah, in Cedar City, is now a major institution, Southern Utah University (the expansion was fueled partly on the patronage of former Gov. Michael Leavitt, an alumnus of the school, who has since served as Director of EPA and Secretary of Health and Human Services — his archives, here).
In the 1970s, Utah tied with Hawaii for the highest average educational attainment of any state. With a population about a million and a half whose median age at 25, average educational attainment was 13 years, a year past high school. The state was founded largely through the efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, or Mormon), and the church puts a premium on education. “Knowledge is the Glory of God” is a frequent saying among church members. Utah had a string of people who served as U.S. Education Commissioner in the old U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and it was only natural that one of those people would serve in the Department of Education once it was broken out — as Terrel Bell did during the Reagan administration.
So Utahns take this education stuff seriously. The mess from the legislature, governor’s office, interest groups and courts, is not something Utah would readily tolerate in the old days. At one point, when the legislature and governor did not support education as many thought necessary, the Utah Education Association organized, and practically picked the next governor (George D. Clyde‘s successor, Calvin L. Rampton, who was Utah’s first three-term governor), and dominated the legislature for years).
With this history of strong backing for public education at all levels, the fight for vouchers in Utah probably is not analogous to voucher fights in eastern states, though it may be a bellwether for what happens in western states other than California.
The fact that education in Utah is in trouble is a historic shift. The work Utahns put to pulling their state’s schools out of the mire may be history-making, too.