Education campaigns on both sides of the private school voucher issue are in full swing, with opponents and proponents racing to get their message out before the November referendum vote.

But some Utahns say the pro-voucher Parents for Choice in Education has gone too far and have digressed from the issue in a push poll conducted this week.

"Utahns will see through what amounts to despicable and desperate tactics," said Wayne Holland, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party in a statement released Thursday. "We urge both sides in the voucher debate to publicly renounce the use of push polling."

This week surveyors, who say they represent a New York City-based firm called Central Marketing, are calling Utahns and asking them to respond to such questions as: "If you knew that the same group that opposes vouchers, the liberal national teacher's union, aggressively supports same-sex unions, higher taxes and more government involvement, would you be very or somewhat more or less likely to vote for or against the Utah referendum?"

Leaders of Parents for Choice in Education said they use the polls to gauge public opinion for internal campaign purposes.

"It certainly does look like an attempt to change subject — I think they recognize that if the debate is about merit of voucher bill itself, then we win," said Lisa Johnson, spokesperson for Utahns for Public Schools and anti-voucher group made up of state leaders, the Utah Education Association and the PTA.

Johnson said she has heard complaints about the surveys.

"When it comes down to it most people would rather see the money invested in public schools where 96 percent of the kids go and they really don't want this voucher program which is fundamentally flawed and really isn't going to help that many Utah families," she said.

But vouchers supporters say it is important for voters to understand the positions taken by they National Education Association, the entity that is driving the agenda of the UEA, said Elisa Clements Peterson, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education.

"Many Utahns would be shocked to know all the issues and positions that are promoted by the National Education Association, Peterson said.

"It's important for voters to understand that the UEA and the NEA take many position contrary to the average Utah voter such as promoting gay and lesbian rights, reproductive freedom or abortion rights and other things that many Utahns would be opposed to," she said.

For their part, voucher opponents say they want to stick to the real issue: vouchers. "We have one issue that we are concerned about, and that's vouchers, so questions that are tangential like that are not our concern," Johnson said.

The voucher program, which was approved by the Legislature this past spring, would provide Utah families with a private-school tuition voucher ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student based on the parents' income.

It also would appropriate $9.2 million for mitigation money to hold schools harmless for five years after a student leaves and goes to a private school.

The anti-voucher group Utahns for Public Schools successfully gathered enough signatures for a referendum that would allow Utahns to decide whether they want a voucher program. As a result, the law is now on hold pending a Nov. 6 vote that will determine if the measure will stay on the books.


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