Confusion in voucher debate looms | ParkRecord.com

Confusion in voucher debate looms

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

The state’s controversial private school voucher program is in limbo as officials in Summit County scramble to conduct a referendum election in November.

But Thursday, state lawmakers and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said the Legislature won’t conduct a special session this summer to sort out the mess.

A statewide petition drive by voucher opponents resulted in a decision to place the referendum before voters during the general election.

However, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff argued that the voucher program passed by lawmakers should have been in effect by the May 15 deadline. But earlier this month the state board of education delayed implementation of the program until after the referendum.

Utah has the nation’s broadest school tax voucher program, which gives parents $500 to $3,000 of public money per child to spend on tuition at a private school. At issue are two voucher laws lawmakers passed in 2007.

One law is on hold pending the Nov. 6 referendum vote and a dispute is raging over whether the second law is sufficient to implement a voucher program.

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Voters can decide in November whether to support the first law or vote to repeal it.

Shurtleff believes the second voucher law legislators passed is adequate to implement the program and encouraged state education officials to recognize the law.

"All legislation is presumed valid until it is stayed or overturned by a court of competent jurisdiction or repealed by the Legislature," Shurtleff wrote in a letter to state school board chairman Kim Burningham. "You may not like, or agree with, the advice we give, but it would be a disservice to you and to the public to only tell you what you want to hear."

Still, on Thursday Huntsman, Senate President John Valentine and House Speaker Greg Curtis issued a statement that declared that the decision by voters on the voucher referendum Nov. 6 will stand.

"Citizens bear the ultimate responsibility for how their government operates and how their children are educated. As elected officials, we support the constitutional right of the people of our state to ratify or reject legislation through the referendum process," the joint statement read.

In municipal elections in odd-numbered years voters aren’t often asked to decide high-profile issues like the school voucher referendum, Summit County Chief Deputy Clerk Scott Hogensen said, adding that next year’s presidential election will have much higher turnout.

"Everybody’s going to be voting then," Hogensen said. "Municipal election turnout is always pretty dismal."

Previously, Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert said the voucher referendum would be placed alongside the names of presidential candidates in the Western States Presidential Primary scheduled next February, Hogensen said.

"We found out last week that the governor had changed his mind and the people in the Legislature had changed their minds and they want to have (the election) sooner rather than later," Hogensen explained. "I don’t think anybody is really thrilled about having to do it at this point in time. Nobody consulted the county clerks about when to do it."

There will be fewer polling locations than in past years if state officials don’t fund the voucher election, he warned.

"We’re going to have to come up with the money to do this unless the state comes up with some money for it," Hogensen said.

But whether ballots are cast on electronic voting machines or less expensive optical-scan equipment isn’t determined, he added.

"It requires a lot more manpower to get the (electronic) machines ready and it requires a lot more manpower to support them while the election is actually running," Hogensen said.

Because the issue is so contentious, Hogensen expects a lawsuit to be filed regardless of the election outcome.

"Personally, I think they should let the referendum stand," Park City Board of Education President Kim Carson said. "Whatever the people say [Huntsman] will stand by it and support it. This is very encouraging and I appreciate that support."

A voucher program would hurt the state’s ability to fund public schools, she lamented.

"Initially, we would be held harmless," Carson said. "But eventually it would take critical education dollars away from public education."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.