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Nuances of vouchers elude many

Most will base opinion on TV ads, analyst says

With less than a month until the private school voucher referendum vote, leaders on both sides of the issue are sprinting to get out the word.

Even so, political expert and former Republican National Committee chairman Richard Richards said most voters don't fully understand the issue.

He said the majority of the people who will make a decision won't form their opinions from newspaper articles and debates but from watching 30-second television commercials.

Compounding the problem is that voters don't have a lot of facts.

"We don't really know how it is going to work in the state of Utah. The facts aren't out there to support either point of view," said Richards, an Ogden resident.

In a recent Deseret Morning News/KSL poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, voters were asked to provide reasons why they would be voting for one side or the other. Sixty percent said they would vote against vouchers while 34 percent said they would vote in favor.

Though some of the responses seemed similar to the talking points of either side of the issue, some were far off.

For instance, voucher supporters have often said they are not advocating a battle between the merits of public schools and private schools, rather the provision of choice. However, many voters in the survey said they would vote in support of a voucher program because private schools need the money, are superior to public schools or have better values.

On the other side, some voters who indicated they would vote against vouchers said they would do so simply because they were related to educators who don't like the program.

Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said on this issue there is a bell curve of voter knowledge.

"You have that small percentage on each side who understand this issue incredibly well and are deeply passionate about their position and then it filters from there to people who know just enough to be dangerous to those who really don't know anything at all," Jowers said.

"And typically, in this type of a setting, confusion is the best friend of 'no,"' he said.

Even so, Jowers said voter knowledge on the voucher issue will be far above that on a typical ballot initiative.

"A lot of times the initiatives are on more insider-type issues like redistricting and bond issues, but this is about children's education, so more people should be engaged in this debate because they have children and grandchildren involved."

And though the battle seems fierce, he said voucher supporters, at this point, are going to have difficulty securing the votes needed to implement the law.

"Probably the most daunting thing for supporters is that they are already so far behind and it is going to be very difficult in less than a month to overcome that. ... If (voters) don't understand it and support it now, it is going to be very difficult to get them to that point," Jowers said.