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Kevin Lee, for the Deseret Morning News
Students from St. Vincent De Paul School cheer during a rally over vouchers.

The State Board of Education and the Utah Attorney General's Office are at a standoff.

Last Friday, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff sent a strongly worded letter to the State Board of Education directing it to immediately implement a voucher law. But state education officials say it's Shurtleff's place to issue advice, not directives.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 parents, students, lawmakers and education officials rallied at the Capitol on Tuesday to show their support for the school voucher law and their disapproval of the state board's refusal to implement the law.

Voucher applications were supposed to be ready today for parents to apply for money that would help send their children to a private school.

But now the original law is on hold since it is being referred to a vote, and the state board so far has not implemented a second law, which passed as an amendment bill.

And state education officials, who received the letter over the weekend, say the AG doesn't have the constitutional authority to tell the state board what it will do.

"The board is not going to rush into implementing something that is going to get it into trouble because Mark Shurtleff suddenly decides that we have to do it," said State Office of Education attorney Jean Hill. "That is for those 15 elected board members to decide, with the best legal advice they can get. And 'just do it' isn't good legal advice."

The Legislature passed the voucher law, HB148, this spring. It would provide Utah families with a private-school tuition voucher ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student attending a private school, based on the parents' income.

Voucher opponents, however, don't want public money going to private schools. They collected 124,000 petition signatures and put the law on hold, pending a referendum vote in November.

But HB174, which made a few changes in the law, was not targeted by the referendum and went into effect last month. According to voucher proponents and the Attorney General's Office, that measure has enough language in it to stand alone.

Even so, state board leaders said the amendment law is fragmented and missing some critical sections and they question whether it is even possible to implement a program from the second law.

So, earlier this month, they opted to table the rules of implementation penned for the original law and are waiting to begin drafting rules for the second law until a couple of dozen questions are answered regarding what they can legally do to fill in the gaps of the law. Those questions were sent to the AG's office Friday.

That means those families hoping to apply for vouchers for the next school year may have to wait a lot longer. State officials have said even if they were to draft rules for the second bill, it would take another three months.

And that has voucher proponents up in arms.

"Vouchers are about kids and we expect government agencies to follow the law," said Lincoln Fillmore, a charter school principal who attended the rally. "The kids who really need these vouchers can't wait for (the state board) to sort out their political frustrations with what the Legislature did."

The rally crowd, clad in blue and red, chanted "Implement" and "We want choice" and brandished signs reading "Vouchers this fall, believe in parents," "Implement 174, it's the law" and "School choice works for Utah."

"Thousands of parents are making sacrifices to ensure their children have a good education. A $3,000 voucher will take them a long ways — implement, it's the law," said Leah Barker, spokeswoman for Parents for Choice in Education and Children First Utah.

Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the whole issue boils down to power.

"This isn't about money, it's about control. It's about a labor union that doesn't want anyone else playing on their turf," he told the crowd. "If public education was good for all parents then we wouldn't be having this movement."

But Richard Eyre, a voucher supporter who has written books addressing school choice, cautioned the crowd against pitting private schools and public schools against each other.

"If this turns into us versus them, private school people versus public school people, we lose big time.... This is a win-win for everyone," Eyre said.


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