Less than 24 hours after the Legislature adjourned, opponents of the school voucher program applied for a referendum petition that could land a final decision in the hands of voters in the next general election.

Utahns for Public Schools, a group formed to head up the task of gathering nearly 100,000 signatures — 91,998 to be exact — in the next 40 days, filed the application asking Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert to consider their cause.

"This is so important that the people in this state should get to vote on it," said Pat Rusk, former president of the Utah Education Association. "We are going to make sure that the citizens of Utah get to decide if they want their tax dollars going to private schools."

Rusk, one of six whose signatures appear on the application, said the group is made up of thousands of concerned residents and has a "high hurdle" to get that many signatures in so few days. "But we are going to make it our lives until it is accomplished."

The voucher program, formally called the Parents for Choice in Education Act, would give Utah families private school tuition vouchers ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student depending on income. Lawmakers passed the measure, dishing out $12 million to get it started, and the governor signed off on the deal.

Supporters of the referendum believe the money could be better spent making necessary reforms in public schools, including decreasing class sizes and bolstering the quality of Utah teachers.

Nancy Pomeroy, spokeswoman for Parents for Choice in Education, said the referendum was not unexpected and that "greed" is the underlying motive.

"It's the parents and children versus unions and educrats," she said.

However, opponents of vouchers say it isn't about the money, as public education was awarded more than ever before, receiving nearly $500 million in extra funds this year.

"I don't expect a tax break to recoup some money for a private choice," said Granite School District Board President Sarah R. Meier, another who signed the application. She compared the idea of public monies going to private schools to buying books that are already available at public libraries, which are funded by tax dollars.

"I believe it's a bad philosophy for a private choice," she said.

A third signer was Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP. She said the organization made the decision to oppose vouchers to avoid potential segregation in schools in the future.

"It would take us back to before Brown v. Board of Education, and we'd see more segregation in schools than not," Williams said, adding that those families who could afford to send their children to private schools would most likely be white and minorities would once again be left where they can afford to be educated — in public schools.

Others who added their signatures to the application for a referendum include Utah State Board of Education President Kim Burningham, former state representative Lamont Tyler and Utah PTA President Carmen Snow.

Utah State Code states that anyone can file an application to counter laws made during the general session of the Legislature, but the declaration must be made in writing within five days of the end of the session. Following the 40 days allotted for gathering signatures — which must come from at least 10 percent of the votes cast for governor in the previous election and be representative at least 15 counties — Herbert's office has 15 days to verify the signatures and then five days to declare whether they are sufficient to warrant a referendum on the ballot.

Joe Demma, Herbert's spokesman, said the governor can do one of two things: place the referendum on the ballot for the next general election, which is in November 2008, or call a special election. Most likely, he said, it would be voted on next year because a special election would cost the state $3.5 million.

"It's a rich voucher program, one of the richest in the country, and it's in a state that has the lowest per-pupil spending," Rusk said. "And across the board, the program doesn't do what it promises to do. It's an issue that we should be able to vote on."


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com