Republican lawmakers who oppose vouchers spoke out Thursday about the "myth" that vouchers will reduce class sizes and help fund enrollment growth and urged voters to read the impartial voter-information pamphlet before casting their ballots.
The press conference on Thursday came after two others on Wednesday that were held by Democrats who oppose the voucher program and Republican legislative leadership who support Referendum 1.
"I respectfully disagree with my Republican colleagues who support the flawed voucher law," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful. "Utah voters, especially Republican voters, need to hear from Republican lawmakers that this law has too many flaws and will cost too much money money that could be spent in our public schools."
Utah's Republican-controlled Legislature created a voucher program earlier this year that gives parents $500 to $3,000 per child, depending on income, to use on tuition at a private school. But voucher opponents gathered enough signatures to suspend the program before any vouchers were issued.
While GOP lawmakers who support vouchers urged voters to read the two bills that could establish the voucher program, Allen said she also wants citizens to read the impartial voter information packet that "describes the costs and so-called savings associated with Referendum 1."
"It clearly demonstrates that, as the program is phased in, the costs far exceed any savings associated with the program," Allen said. "Over a 13-year period, Referendum 1 would cost the state $429 million, which is hundreds of millions of dollars more than even the most optimistic estimate of savings."
The lawmakers also disputed recent statements that vouchers stave off enormous tax increases to fund Utah's rapid enrollment growth in the coming decade.
"We have funded education in the state through our entire history, through the Depression and thick and thin," said Rep. Kay McIff, R-Richfield. "Now we find ourselves with the fewest numbers of kids per family and the strongest economy in our state's history and they are saying, 'We can't afford to fund our kids' education'... Citizens should know that we will continue to educate our kids in the state (in a system) that gives us the biggest bang for our buck."
Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan, also said he wanted to dispel the myth that vouchers will lower Utah's large class sizes.
"If you reduce the number of students in a school, then you reduce the number of teachers as well. ... Vouchers will not change that," Mascaro said.
The Legislative Fiscal Analyst estimates a reduction of three students, at most, per school per year, he said.
But voucher supporters met Wednesday to challenge that point.
"All of the money that is currently in public education is going to stay there with fewer children," said State Board of Education member Mark Cluff, one of three board members who support Referendum 1. "The local school board can decide how they spend this extra money be it increasing salaries or lowering class sizes."
Cluff did say that after five years that money will no longer be in the schools but also said the districts can use those five years to plan and to adjust as needed.
Utah's voucher fight has attracted attention from various outside groups, including Arizona's largest teachers union. The union is joining the battle inside Utah, asking volunteers to participate in a telephone tree and speak to Utah voters ahead of the Nov. 6 vote.
Both sides have been pouring millions of dollars donated by out-of-state organizations into the debate. Each side believes that if the voucher program is upheld in Utah, it will quickly spread to other states.
The state's primary pro-voucher group, Parents for Choice in Education, says it's not surprised that donations from other states are pouring in and that teachers in Arizona are mobilizing to call Utah voters."We know that the main opponent of this referendum is the NEA, so we're not surprised they've had out-of-state help from the beginning. I think that this referendum is threatening to members of the national union and in teachers unions in other states," said spokeswoman Camden Hubbard. "It offers (parents) an alternative. It offers them an option to do something about those rare deficient public school teachers. Sadly, the unions are too often in favor of protecting the jobs of those teachers at the expense of students."
Contributing: Associated Press