SALT LAKE CITY – Utah 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.
It was the first voucher election in the U.S. since 2000, when voters in Michigan and California rejected efforts to subsidize private schools.
Utah, with a conservative electorate, a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature, was seen nationally as a key test of voter sentiment for vouchers. But opponents, with millions of dollars from a national teachers union, persuaded residents to say no.
With 95 percent of 2,237 precincts reporting, 62 percent of voters cast ballots against the program.
"The problem of voucher supporters is that they never really figured out what Utah voters would support in advance of passing legislation," said Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson.
"They never really anticipated it would go to the ballot," he said, adding that lawmakers were "shooting a little too high."
Pre-election public opinion polls indicate widespread opposition to vouchers, especially in rural areas where often there are no private schools for hundreds of miles.
Utah's referendum on vouchers was 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.
Voucher critics argued 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 contended the program would reduce classes 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.
"It's a big relief and it's an expression of support for Utah's schools," said Utah Education Association President Kim Campbell, a voucher opponent.
Both sides spent millions in recent months on TV ads. Opposition to vouchers was 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 were 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 thanks donated much of the rest.
Doug Holmes, chairman of Parents for Choice in Education, said opponents used fear to kill vouchers. Prize-winning teachers surrounded by kids appeared in TV ads warning that the program was flawed and a threat to public schools.
"Serious people who evaluated the policy -- the governor, the Legislature, the business community, etc. -- all support this," Holmes said.
Unions "come in with misinformation and scare tactics and scare people into supporting the status quo even though the status quo is not doing a great job," he said.
People on both sides of the issue said 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 wouldn't tell people how to vote.
Many conservatives said Huntsman was bowing to public pressure after surveys repeatedly showed most voters didn't want vouchers. He appeared at an Oct. 17 news conference that was turned into a pro-voucher ad.
Spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley did not return a message seeking comment on the election result.
Byrne, who bankrolled most of the pro-voucher campaign, expressed disappointment with the governor as the votes were counted Tuesday night.
"Once he saw the polls on this referendum he's been pretty much missing in action," Byrne told KUTV.