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Essay Links Vouchers to Saving Mormon Culture

Essay Links Vouchers to Saving Mormon Culture



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A conservative think tank is distributing a lengthy essay on the history of education in Utah that implies that if Mormons don't vote in favor of the state's school voucher law that they could face cultural extinction.

The Mormon-oriented Sutherland Institute bought advertisements in Utah's two largest newspapers to publish its essay, which says public schools were introduced in Utah by federal officials who wanted to end The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' control of the state.

"The object was to provide a broader context, not just for the voucher debate but for education reform policy debates across the spectrum," Mero says. "The paper was written with the hopes that we can lessen the contentiousness."

Utah passed the nation's broadest private school voucher program, giving parents $500 to $3,000 per child to attend private school. Voters will decide whether to keep the program Nov. 6.

Voucher opponents say they are appalled by some of the essay's statements, including author Paul Mero's assertion that public schools historically have been part of the federal government's campaign of "cultural cleansing" of minority groups.

Mero stands behind the statements and says it applies to Mormons, American Indians and other minority groups. "I've just written what the history is," he says. "I'm not making stuff up." Voucher advocacy group Parents for Choice in Education would not comment on the essay. The unofficial blog of Senate Republicans, www.senatesite.com, features the essay on its site and calls it a "striking analysis ... offering historic context for the voucher discussion."

Senate Republicans voted in favor of the voucher law and working to rally support for it before the November referendum.

Opponents of vouchers say the essay is an attempt to convince Mormon voters that their forebears would want them to join the voucher cause.

"No honest person who has studied the historical record of Utahns prior to statehood could conclude anything other than that they would have embraced what we now call vouchers," the essay says. "I shook my head when I read it," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, who is Mormon and a voucher opponent. Allen said that if Mero's argument is that because 19th-century Mormons relied on private schools, state government should provide vouchers today, "Then we should also go back to polygamy, too."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stopped sanctioning polygamy in 1890 as a condition of statehood. Harvey Kantor, chairman of the University of Utah's Department of Education, Culture and Society, says it is dangerous to try to compare historically distant societies. "He's trying to apply the practices of a 19th-century society to the concerns we have today. We are talking about two very different societies," Kantor says. "The only people that would make sense to would be fundamentalist Mormons."

Fundamentalist Mormons continue to practice polygamy, believing mainstream Mormons betrayed their faith by abandoning the practice because of pressure from federal authorities. "It was not meant to flush out the good Mormons and call them to the cause," Mero said. He says it was intended to say that those familiar with state history shouldn't fear vouchers.

Kim Burningham, a voucher opponent and chairman of the Utah Board of Education, worries the essay will increase religious contention in the state. "If there's anything Utah doesn't need in the 21st century, it's more divisiveness between Mormons and non-Mormons," Burningham said. "Our current (public education) system provides an excellent compromise - seminary . . . that allows the LDS faithful to obtain daily religious instruction."

Voucher opponent Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, says the Sutherland essay is deplorable. "It was almost sacrilegious. He's implying that somehow the church is approving of vouchers because of how they conducted school in the early days. He is trying to connect it to the Mormon religion," she said.

Church spokesman Mark N. Tuttle issued a two-sentence response to the essay, saying the church hasn't taken a position on school vouchers.

Frederick Buchanan, a retired University of Utah professor who has written extensively on the history of Utah education, questions the idea that the public school system threatens Mormon culture in Utah. "That's nonsense. The public school system reinforces the LDS values at every turn," he said.

That's one reason, Buchanan says, there are so few Mormon parochial schools. The Catholic school system is the largest private school system in Utah.

When the federal government pushed Utah to establish public schools to replace the Mormon church-controlled system, he says, Mormon leaders decided "We'll make them our schools."

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune

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

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