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KSL Team CoverageUtah voters on Tuesday killed the nation's first statewide school voucher program that promised tax dollars for private tuition, no matter how much a family earned or whether kids were in bad schools.
The anti-voucher group put a lot of money and time into making sure Referendum 1 was defeated, and Kim Campbell, head of the Utah Education Association, was part of that group.
"We feel encouraged, and we're certainly appreciative of all the efforts of the citizens who came out to vote and all the people who participated in the referendum drive, and all the people who worked on the campaign," she said.
She says going forward the group hopes the attention will turn to more meaningful reforms in the public school system. "We hope this support will turn into conversations about what will make a difference in Utah's classrooms. Overcrowding is an issue. We want to provide the kinds of salaries and benefits and the kinds of support systems that will attract and retain quality teachers, so every classroom in Utah has a quality teacher in it," she said.
Those who supported vouchers also made a big push. Richard Eyre, from the Oreo cookie ad, says even though it appears Referendum 1 failed, he's glad parents got involved in the campaign and the issues.
"I think the momentum will continue; I don't know in what form, but I think parents want more power and more stewardship over their own kids," Eyre said.
State lawmakers wanted to grant $500 to $3,000, depending on family income, for each child sent to private school. Unlike voucher programs in other states, even affluent families in well-performing districts would qualify.
Voucher opponents, which included nearly every educational group in the state, gathered enough signatures to suspend the law before any vouchers were issued pending the outcome of Tuesday's referendum.
Polls had indicated many rural voters would oppose the measure. In many rural areas, there are no private schools for hundreds of miles. More than 60 percent of voters statewide opposed it.
Utah's referendum on vouchers is the first in the country since 2000, when voucher proposals were voted down in Michigan and California. There have been 10 state referendums on various voucher programs since 1972, according to the National School Boards Association. Each time vouchers or tuition tax credits were voted down by an average of 68.6 percent. California, Michigan and Colorado voters defeated voucher proposals twice.
The critics say the state shouldn't spend money on private schools when Utah has the nation's largest class sizes and spends less per student than any other state. Voucher proponents say the program would reduce class sizes in public schools, give parents a choice which school their child goes to that's not dictated by where they can afford to live and improve public schools through competition.
Both sides have spent millions in recent months on TV ads. Opposition to vouchers is primarily funded by teachers unions, with the National Education Association spending nearly $3.2 million on the campaign against vouchers.
Overstock.com founder and CEO Patrick Byrne and his family are the primary financiers behind the pro-voucher commercials, donating more than $2.7 million of the $3.8 million raised by Parents for Choice in Education. Out-of-state conservative think tanks donated much of the rest.
People on both sides of the issue believe that the referendum's outcome will influence how vouchers play out in other states.
Voucher programs exist in various forms in about a dozen states. Most are limited programs, targeted at low-income students in poorly performing districts or at special needs students. Many conservative lawmakers would like to see those voucher programs expanded.
Utah is one of the nation's most conservative states and was targeted by national voucher advocates as a state likely to be receptive to a voucher program. Voucher groups, primarily funded by the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune and the founder of Amway, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars helping to elect pro-voucher candidates to the Utah Legislature. Support for vouchers got popular Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman through the Republican Party's caucus system and on the ballot.
Huntsman signed the voucher bill into law, but stopped at telling people how to vote. Public opinion polls have shown most voters opposed vouchers.
(Associated Press contributed to this report.)