Voucher proponents are hoping to march into enemy territory next month at the Utah Education Association convention and present their side of the issue in hopes of garnering support for the controversial voucher law that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Richard Eyre, spokesman for Parents for Choice in Education, has asked to present the pro side of the voucher debate to the nearly 18,000-member teachers organization that opposes vouchers and is currently working to ensure a voucher program is not implemented in Utah.

"I want to go right into the lion's den," Eyre said. "I really believe a large number of teachers are in favor of more choice for parents and of vouchers, but they can't be very open about it because their union, that does a lot of good for them, has vehemently opposed.

"I don't see why they would oppose me coming — I am going to present the other side and they are a democratic institution so they ought to welcome a chance to hear the other side. And if they are so confident of their position, then what are they afraid of?"

Eyre admitted he is a little miffed that it has been nearly a week since he sent the request, and he still has not heard a response from the UEA, which is also a member of Utahns for Public Schools, the anti-voucher coalition of teachers, education leaders and community members.

And though a formal response has yet to be sent, that isn't likely to happen, according to UEA leaders.

"We kind of think (Eyre's request to speak) is more of a public relations ploy than anything else," said Susan Kuziak, UEA executive director. "From our perspective, we start planning that convention the day the prior year's is over, and our schedule of sessions has been set for over two months, the program has been printed and already distributed, so we are not able to adjust that program, anyway."

She said for someone with Eyre's experience with large events to make that request weeks before the convention occurs is questionable.

Even so, Eyre told the Deseret Morning News on Monday there are plans to challenge voucher opponents in a series of at least five debates in the days leading up to Election Day.

He said the move would really turn the voucher campaign around and would allow the public to get deeper into the issue and hear more of the facts than just a few snippets heard in media ads from both sides of the issue.

In a related matter, the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank and a strong voucher supporter, released an essay penned by director Paul Mero that documents Utah's education history. It points out that the idea of voucherlike school reform is not new in Utah, specifically in the state's early beginnings.

But critics say Mero is bringing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the debate when it really shouldn't be involved.

Mero notes Utah's education identity before statehood, among Mormon settlers, was based on trusting parents to know what educational choices was best for their children. But according to the essay, those ideals were dashed after statehood when "legions of outsiders," namely the federal government, came in and told Utahns what was best for them, using them "like guinea pigs for all sorts of new styles of pedagogies."

According to the essay, the voucher program falls under those old education ideals held by early Mormons.

A statement in the essay that has irked anti-voucher leaders reads: "No honest person who has studied the historical record of Utahns prior to statehood could conclude anything other than that they would have embraced what we now call vouchers."

But anti-voucher leaders have called the issue a distraction.

"(The essay) is just one more thing in a line of distractions from what the real issue should be — it's just a chance to not talk about what's really on the ballot, and what's really on the ballot is a flawed proposal," said Lisa Johnson, spokesperson for Utahns for Public Schools.

"It's bringing religion into a political situation where it probably isn't appropriate, and we appreciate the church's comment that they haven't taken a position on vouchers," she said. "We shouldn't take past statements as an endorsement on any current political view — there are many things that just don't apply anymore because we live in a different situation."


E-mail: [email protected]