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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Vik Arnold thanks anti-voucher supporters as Utah PTA members Marilyn Simister and Cheryl Phipps hug at an anti-voucher party.

Supporters say it was a worthy fight. But after eight full months of aggressive campaigning and millions of dollars spent on the battle, the voucher law was rejected by Utah voters.

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Opponents are relieved. And while some voucher proponents say they are at least satisfied with how far they had come, others say the 62 percent vote that defeated the private school voucher law — which lost in every county in the state — is a disgrace.

"I'm ashamed of Utah that this could even be a close vote," said Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, who has donated millions of dollars to support vouchers. "This is parents looking at their kids getting a third-rate education and other kids getting basically a death sentence and saying, 'That's OK by me."'

But those on the anti-voucher front were hugging and cheering Tuesday night. Voucher critics say the vote sends a potent message to the legislators who passed the law last spring.

"I think it shows that Utah voters care about all Utah children and they care about putting all the resources we have in the state in public schools where they can be available for all children," said Lisa Johnson, spokeswoman for the anti-voucher Utahns for Public Schools.

"So for us this is the end of a campaign but really a beginning as well — we look forward to working with the Legislature and others in the education community and working on meaningful reforms that will help all students," she said.

The voucher law, which squeaked through the Legislature, would have provided Utah families with a private-school tuition voucher ranging from $500 to $3,000 per student based on the parents' income.

In March, Utahns for Public Schools successfully gathered enough signatures for the referendum that would allow Utahns to decide whether they wanted a voucher program. The law was put on hold pending Tuesday's vote but is now off the books.

"This sends a strong message to us as legislators to represent the constituents that elect us — we're not here for political party, we're not here for the issue — we're there to represent the voice of the people and if we don't do that, then we don't deserve to be re-elected," said Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, who voted against vouchers during the legislative session.

Utah House Speaker Greg Curtis said that with the voucher law defeat, "we'll take a time out" in the 2008 Legislature: no voucher bills.

"I've talked with Gov. (Jon) Huntsman (Jr.) and other leaders," Curtis, R-Sandy, said Tuesday night. "We are not going to do anything on vouchers next session."

Not even a scaled-down voucher bill, such as one that would give private school tuition payments to Utah's poor or middle-income?

"No. There are a lot of other things we need to focus on" in the Legislature come January's general session, the speaker said. "And we will do those things."

Curtis said he does not believe that the GOP legislative majority was out of step with rank-and-file Republicans across the state, even though polls show that many Republicans were voting against vouchers.

Always a statistical wonk, Curtis has worked the numbers. He said that about 70 percent of the 55 House Republicans voted for the main voucher bill, HB148. When you take into account the percentage of Republicans across all Utah, and take 70 percent of that number, "you are at about 42 percent to 43 percent of the voters," said Curtis. "And that's about where the pro-voucher vote is going. So, no, I don't believe that (the GOP majority in the House and Senate) are out of step" with Utah Republicans at-large.

Regardless of the loss, voucher advocates say the costly campaign and weeks of sleepless nights were not a lost cause.

"I feel really good about the campaign and the fact that people have started to really engage in a dialogue about education reform is extremely positive, and we are going to work to keep building that momentum," said Doug Holmes, chairman of the pro-voucher Parents for Choice in Education. "We have moved from a small tight group to a big coalition that is looking for changes and reform and we are going to keep pushing ... and that is very positive."

But Byrne has a different take.

"I don't buy that. When you run the ball down to the 2-yard line you don't get four points for it — (the loss) is shameful," Byrne said.

Utah political experts say the voucher battle has been the biggest of its kind.

"In money spent it may be unparalleled in Utah, but I think what this lacked is feeling that it was ever a true contest in these past six months," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Political Institute. "There was never a feeling that it was a legitimate contest."


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