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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
On the steps of the Salt Palace on Monday teachers hold signs showing their opposition to Referendum 1.

The state's biggest teachers union kicked off its annual convention with warnings that private school vouchers threaten the survival of public schools.

"We will not sit quietly and politely and let you politicians who are claiming to do this for the public schools do something that hurts our schools and makes no sense for our communities," said Lily Eskelsen, 1989 Utah Teacher of the Year and secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association.

Eskelsen spoke Monday morning as keynote speaker of the Utah Education Association 2007 convention held at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.

"We are not afraid," she said, "of being called names by individuals and organizations that have infinitely more money than we will ever have."

In the spring, lawmakers passed what has been described as the nation's most generous voucher law, giving up to $3,000 per child, depending on family income, for private-school tuition. A successful petition drive by voucher foes forced the issue on the ballot, and voters can embrace or reject Referendum 1 on Nov. 6.

"No issue is more important to the future of our students, our careers and our schools than this one," said Kim Campbell, president of the 24,000-strong UEA, during a rally against Referendum 1 Monday morning.

"Privatization is a precursor to elitism, a road we don't want to go down for the children of Utah," said Roger Pate, president of the 6,000 classified employees who are members of the UEA.

Utah counts about 28,000 teachers. About 10,000 teachers do not belong to the UEA. Some belong to other teacher unions, and some are not represented by any collective bargaining group.

Other sessions during the UEA convention included tips for teaching grammar and chemistry, and how to foster an environment of kindness in the classroom.

Teachers did not receive licensure credit for attending an anti-voucher rally, where they were urged to fill out informational cards and donation envelopes to help fight vouchers.

Those at the rally also received a list of legislators who voted for and against the voucher law. During the rally, they were urged to call supporters from cell phones and thank them.

Bingham High teacher Janice Voorhies left a message for Jim Bird, R-West Jordan, her representative. "He's been very supportive of education," she said.

However, not all teachers attended the anti-voucher rally.

Just two flights of stairs below the rally were teachers talking with textbook and school supply vendors. Many teach at private schools and some support vouchers.

"I think it's great," said Rebecca Camara, a teacher at the Montessori School of Murray, who wishes her children's private school tuition would be covered by the law. (The voucher law will not grandfather in students already attending private schools.)

Teacher Debbie Williams also believes vouchers could be positive because taxpayers spend more than $3,000 to educate a child in Utah, meaning not all the education funds will follow the child to the private school.

"I don't know if it will directly affect us," Williams said. "We only have 85 kids, and we're a preschool through third-grade school."

Schools in Utah County were not out for what's what has traditionally been called the UEA break. Alpine, Provo and Nebo school districts held fall break at an earlier time.

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