Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Sandy Walker, left, Venice Garner and Mikel Gajkowski stamp incoming voucher petitions at the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office Monday. Utah's school voucher program has become a nationwide issue.

A bitter, intensely local fight has erupted in Utah over whether public money should be used to send children to private schools, turning ordinarily quiet neighborhoods into hotbeds of political activism.

Parents have been walking door-to-door, from soccer games to baseball games, hoping to persuade their friends and strangers that Utah is either helping children by giving them money to attend private schools or hurting them by taking away money that could be spent on all the state's children.

It's a debate that will likely play out in neighborhoods nationwide as voucher proponents use Utah's new school voucher program as an example to get legislation passed elsewhere. That is exactly what national voucher groups and their donors had in mind when Utah and its conservative Legislature were targeted with more than $500,000 in campaign donations last year.

Utah has the nation's broadest school voucher program, which allows parents between $500 and $3,000 for their children to attend a private school. It passed in the state House by one vote.

"This is the camel's nose under the tent," said Patrick Byrne, who is CEO of Overstock.com, an online shopping site, and gave $70,000 to the local pro-voucher group Parents for Choice in Education. "If it takes hold here and proceeds here it will have a demonstrative effect that no other states can afford to ignore."

Byrne is Parents for Choice in Education's largest donor from Utah. Nearly half the money the group spent on legislative campaigns came from a political action committee called All Children Matter based out of Alexandria, Va., that has its headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich. All Children Matter donated $240,000 to Parents for Choice in Education in 2006 and about $250,000 during the 2004 campaign cycle, finance reports in Utah show.

Utah was one of 10 states that All Children Matter has targeted to affect state elections, spending about $8 million nationwide in the 2003-04 election cycle. It is an organization dedicated to supporting candidates who favor charter schools and voucher programs.

It's largely financed by heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune and the founders of Amway, according to finance reports in Virginia.

In 2004, Jim Walton and John Walton, children of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, each donated more than $3 million to All Children Matter, the reports showed.

In 2006, the estate of John Walton donated another $4.1 million, the reports showed.

"It's certainly not a grass-roots operation. These are heavy hitters," said Rich Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign spending.

Another large donor to All Children Matter is the DeVos family, which founded Amway, a household and nutritional products company, campaign finance reports show.

Dick DeVos is a former CEO of the company and a failed candidate for governor of Michigan. He's advocated creating school voucher programs for years and led a ballot initiative that would have allowed vouchers, which was defeated by voters there.

Between 1999 and 2005, DeVos and his relatives spent more than $7 million funding voucher political action committees, including more than $430,000 to All Children Matter, according to records kept by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Messages left by The Associated Press for DeVos, All Children Matter Executive Director Greg Brock and at Wal-Mart headquarters were not returned.

Nancy Pomeroy, spokeswoman for Parents for Choice in Education, makes no apologies about where her group's funding comes from — which also includes the Utah Association of Realtors and EnergySolutions, operator of the country's largest and only privately owned radioactive-waste dump.

"We're not ashamed," she said. "This is a David and Goliath fight. We're little."

Pomeroy said vouchers' primary opponent, the Utah Education Association, also receives money from out-of-state interests through the National Education Association.

"I think those who live in fat, honking glass houses should not be lobbing stones. Vouchers have come up for the better part of a decade and been shot down by big bucks coming out of state from the NEA. Look at what their agenda is — to kill vouchers," she said.

However, nearly all the UEA's political contributions came from individual donors from Utah and most of those were for less than $100, though the NEA donated $25,000 to the UEA in 2002, state campaign finance reports show.

In the past five years, the UEA has spent about $1 million in campaign expenditures. Parents for Choice in Education has spent about $900,000. It spent no money on campaigns in 2001.

The UEA is Utah's largest teachers union and was one of several education groups that opposed the voucher effort. It, along with other groups, is now trying to get enough votes to repeal the program via referendum.

Marilyn Kofford, education commissioner for the Utah Parent Teacher Association, said getting the law repealed will be a tough battle and also compares the struggle to that of David and Goliath, the Bible's Philistine giant killed by a rock from David's slingshot.

"We fought it for 10 years, and we were successful for 10 years. Then they brought in their big money and helped some of the legislators win," she said. "We are not wealthy people. We are basic, good middle-of-the-road citizens. Somewhere we're going to have to find the resources, but there's no way we will ever raise as much as they do. They will probably outspend us 10-to-1, big time."