State Ed Board Refuses to Set Rules for Private-School Vouchers

State Ed Board Refuses to Set Rules for Private-School Vouchers



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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The state Board of Education declined to establish rules governing a private-school voucher program on Thursday, virtually ensuring it will miss its May 15 deadline and invite a lawsuit that could decide the fate of the program months before voters get their say.

Opponents of vouchers gathered enough signatures to force a statewide referendum on repealing the law, which offers parents $500 to $3,000 in state money for each child they send to private school.

But the Legislature passed a second voucher law that cleaned up and repeated many parts of the original, including deadlines the state school board would follow to implement the program. On Thursday, board members said legal and ethical questions would prevent them from meeting the May 15 deadline.

Chief among the questions was whether the board should create guidelines for a voucher program before voters decide whether they want one. The board was uncertain what rules the second, unchallenged voucher law allowed it to write. "We simply cannot move forward," said board member Debra Roberts.

Instead, the board is asking Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman to call a special legislative session to rescind the second voucher law. Roberts said that would allow voters to decide whether they want a voucher program instead of a judge to decide the issue. "Right now it's muddy waters, it's politics. It's a game that's being played," Roberts said.

However, some board members, including chairman Kim Burningham, have said they think the school voucher issue should be decided by the state Supreme Court. "We hope that this delay is not another tactic intended to undermine the school choice law," Leah Barker, spokeswoman for several pro-voucher groups, said in a statement.

Huntsman's spokesman, Mike Mower, said the governor hasn't received a proposal from the state school board on rescinding the second voucher law, but he is committed to calling a special legislative session to set a Feb. 5 date for the referendum.

The idea of rescinding the second voucher law during a special session is one originally proposed by Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City. "This would make it crystal clear that the referendum is about the issue of vouchers in general, a popular up-or-down vote on taxpayer-funded private school vouchers. If the referendum passes, the issue would be settled and the bill would bar the implementation of HB 148 and HB 174. If the referendum fails, then game on -- Utah has a voucher program," McCoy wrote in a blog post.

In an advisory opinion requested by Huntsman, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said the voucher program should go ahead, despite the referendum.

The state school board will also ask Shurtleff a different set of questions about what rules it could establish under the second voucher law.

Board attorney Jean Hill said it's unclear whether the board can create rules on income eligibility that was outlined in the first law but not the second. The second law also doesn't define which private schools are eligible to participate in the program, she said.

The board had adopted rules for the first voucher law, but she says those can't be implemented now. "As a practical matter it is impossible for you to get a rule in place by May 15. You cannot pass the rule that you had because it's based on a law that's no longer in existence," she said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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