Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Teachers rally at the "No Excuses" platform at the UEA's annual convention Thursday at the Salt Palace. The teachers union is in a political battle for influence and cash with Parents for Choice in Education, which favors school vouchers.

Hobnobbing with political candidates, rallying for more school funding, decrying lawmakers' recent tax cut — the Utah Education Association's annual convention launched with a political kick Thursday.

"The state of Utah is sitting on a $275 million surplus — money that could change the face of public education ... and yet many of our political leaders chose to invest in tax cuts," UEA President Kim Campbell said as about 200 teachers and a couple of political candidates stood behind her, cheering and waving signs to kick off the third year of the union's "No More Excuses: Invest In Public Schools!" campaign.

"We need to elect those with the political will to ... stand up for public education."

The cry comes as the UEA's political war chest dwindles, while voucher-pushing Parents for Choice in Education, against which its education ideals are often pitted, increases at more than four times the rate of the union's.

The UEA's political action committee this election year has received about $60,000 in donations; Parents For Choice has garnered more than $257,000.

But don't count the UEA out of the power circles, said Vik Arnold, UEA government relations and political action director.

"I don't want to minimize the importance of cash," Arnold said. "But the most valuable resource we have here is our school members. We represent a lot of votes ... and a lot of volunteers who can go out and walk for candidates. Money can't buy that kind of support."

The UEA typically invites endorsed candidates to its convention on election years. It also has hosted political rallies and marches in recent years. The union is working to boost money for schools in a state that spends the least per student in the country, and keep the Utah House tipped in its favor, voting against tax credits for private school tuition or a general private school voucher.

But voucher-backing Parents For Choice is working just as hard this election season to tip the scales its way. It is helping candidates with mailers and donations, just as the UEA is reimbursing printing costs and sinking money into campaigns.

The UEA in all has spent just over $100,000 this year; Parents for Choice, $195,000. The UEA, however, has over $255,000 left in its war chest; Parents for Choice, $77,000.

"If we were so (powerless), how come Parents for Choice is spending all this money?" said Joel Briscoe, Bountiful High teacher and former 2006 candidate for the Utah House.

Parents for Choice spokeswoman Nancy Pomeroy says the organization is heartened both by the donations it has received this year and its position as the November election approaches.

"We've gotten a lot of support not just from parents ... but teachers saying, 'We can't support you on the record,"' Pomeroy said. She said donations are coming in from people who want a choice in education outside of government-run schools.

"Their own people stopped supporting them, what does that tell you?"

Arnold says the UEA is rebuilding to its usual $100,000 or more a year in donations, assisted now that the courts have overturned a law banning public employees from having political donations taken out of their paychecks. He says the law didn't kill all donations; just the small, $1 and $2 a month contributions. Considering the union has 18,000 members, a buck a month from individuals can add up.

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The UEA in turn criticizes Parents for Choice because its donors have deep pockets: $100,000 comes from the East Coast group All Children Matter; $50,000 from CEO and Utah resident Patrick Byrne, and $20,000 from Doug Holmes, instrumental in Utah's voucher movement.

Pomeroy shrugs off the criticism.

"I say, hallelujah for people who can afford to spend incredible amounts of money on selfish things like yachts ... and instead they're choosing to put their money in education so every child ... can have the best education possible," Pomeroy said.

"That is to be lauded."

The UEA convention continues today at the Salt Palace Convention Center beginning with a speech from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The convention offers teachers classes, access to educational vendors, and a chance, as union leaders have long said, to recharge their batteries.