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Group may oppose Walker

But Parents for Choice stays mum — for now

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Gov. Olene Walker says she's open and willing to look at anything that makes sense as long as it doesn't jeopardize public education funding.

Gov. Olene Walker says she’s open and willing to look at anything that makes sense as long as it doesn’t jeopardize public education funding.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

Before the May 8 state Republican convention, GOP Gov. Olene Walker may find a conservative group for school choice campaigning against her.

Parents for Choice in Education said Monday that while a recent mailing in favor of "school choice" doesn't mention Walker by name, another mailing that will hit the 3,500 state delegates' doorsteps this week could.

"We don't want to give anything away" before events unfold, said Elisa Clements Peterson, head of the Parents for Choice political action committee.

Peterson adds that before the convention the advocacy group "may well name" gubernatorial candidates who don't support the move to change state law to provide for some kind of tax credit to parents who send their children to private schools.

Walker has seen the flier, spokeswoman Amanda Covington said, and is reiterating her stand: "I'm open to and willing to look at anything that makes sense as long as it doesn't jeopardize the bottom line: public education funding."

She also is talking with individual delegates to reiterate her position, and her support for specific school choices of charter schools, home schooling and private schooling — all in the GOP party platform Walker helped author, Covington said.

The hotly debated issue has been before several recent Utah legislatures. In the 2004 session, Rep. Jim Ferrin's tuition tax credit bill came out of a House committee. But in a rare move, the whole 75-member House, in a close vote, refused to accept the committee's report. And Ferrin's bill died without a full House debate.

Moderate GOP legislators voted with Democrats to kill the bill. And the political repercussions have been felt in county Republican conven tions this month.

With Walker the only GOP gubernatorial candidate opposing broad school vouchers or tax credits, and with Peterson's group's pro-school choice campaign this spring, it looks like tuition tax credits will be a part of the May 8 state convention as well.

The delegates will winnow the eight-member GOP field down to two, who will face each other in a June 22 primary.

The school-choicers' stand on tuition tax credits is opposed by other groups, including the Utah Education Association, which is named in the delegates' mailer as an Al Gore- and Hillary Clinton-supported liberal cause favoring "higher taxes and the status quo" in education.

"I hope people can see through that kind of promotion. It isn't factual. It's just using very emotionally charged words to try and make people suspicious of one another and foster hate for another group," UEA President Pat Rusk said.

"This is going to delegates because, I believe, they know there are moderate Republican delegates out there and they are doing everything they can to discredit those people when they go to the convention."

But the UEA, which has more than 350 confirmed "education-friendly delegates," doesn't plan a counterattack. Rather, Rusk says the 19,000-member teachers union will talk with delegates.

"We'll be telling (them) the truth. We'll be giving information to our delegates so they can make an informed choice," Rusk said. "I believe there's a high road in this, and we intend to take it."

The school-choicers' recent mailing to delegates quotes the pro-parental choice section of the current Utah GOP platform. It also has quotes from former president Ronald Reagan, pollster Richard Wirthlin, retired baseball player Dale Murphy and former Miss America Sharlene W. Hawkes.

"We want the delegates to understand" that supporting school choice "is part of our conservative values in Utah and key to us," said Peterson.

"Most of the Republican candidates for governor are fairly supportive of us," she added, except for Walker. "I'd list the strongest supporters as (House speaker) Marty Stephens, (local businessman) Fred Lampropoulos, (former ambassador) Jon Huntsman Jr., and (state senator) Parley Hellewell," said Peterson.

The governor has said time and again that she won't support taking state tax dollars away from public education until public schools are adequately funded. Asked if she supported Ferrin's bill last session, Walker said at the time she hasn't yet seen a proposal that meets her first criterion: No harm to public education.

The UEA has not yet endorsed a candidate for governor, Rusk said. But, she added, "Within the party, (Walker) is certainly the candidate whose educational views are most aligned with ours."

Peterson declined to say how much money her PAC has raised and spent. "But it is not a great deal." The recent mailer was the third going to delegates. This week's will be the fourth.

Tuition tax credits is only one of many issues delegates are concerned about in the governor's race, Peterson admitted. "But (the candidates) haven't distinguished themselves a great deal on the others." School choice is one issue where a few candidates, notably Walker, separate from the rest of the field, she said.

"Education is important to delegates. They will watch the (governor candidates) closely to see who will make meaningful education reform a priority," Peterson said.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; jtcook@desnews.com