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School vouchers pass House by one vote

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In a vote that could usher in one of the most sweeping state education policy changes in recent history, the Utah House approved a private school tuition voucher program — by a single vote.

Parents for Choice in Education spokeswoman Nancy Pomeroy called 38-37 vote on HB148 a big win for Utah families.

"The score: Parents and children: 1. Unions and educrats: 0," she said.

Opponents said the vote resulted from arm-twisting and wealthy out-of-state special interests.

"I'm so disappointed in the whole political arena ... (more) like a political invasion," Utah PTA President Carmen Snow said. "I just want to cry."

The more than two-thirds Republican Senate is expected to favor the bill, Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said.

"In the (GOP) Senate caucus, we had at least 19 senators indicate strong support for a voucher bill," Bramble said. "Those numbers may change ... but I think there's pretty strong support in the Senate."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. expressed support for the concept in his 2004 campaign.

"The governor's opinion on this issue hasn't changed from where he was two years ago. He supports a reasonable, means-tested voucher plan that holds public education harmless," Huntsman spokesman Mike Mower said. "The governor will make a decision about signing any proposal when it reaches his desk."

The Parent Choice in Education Act, sponsored by Rep. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, would give families a private school tuition voucher that would range from $500 to $3,000, based on income.

The bill, which calls for $9.2 million in general, not school funds, would leave per-student spending over and above the amount of the voucher in the school system. So, an estimated average $2,000 voucher still would leave $1,500 in state spending in the school district where the voucher recipient lives for the next five years, unless the student graduates.

The bill seeks $9.2 million, but the Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst also says it would put nearly $4 million back into the schools' budget in the first year. The program would require more funding in the coming years.

Supporters say the public schools end up financially better off in the bill, and that parents are the ultimate winners, with a world of additional educational opportunities at their fingertips.

"It's tough to find one (program) in government that meets all needs," said Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville. "For me, it's about the ability of a parent to choose for their child what works best for the way they learn."

Opponents disagree, saying the state can't afford to fund another education system when the one it has already receives too little. They also question what they call loose state accountability requirements and constitutionality of the bill that would send money to religious schools, though supporters say the bill is constitutionally sound, and contains no red flags from legislative attorneys.

"This is not the camel's nose in the tent; this is the whole camel in the tent," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful. "I think this is a choice that is not appropriate at this time. ... Let's concentrate on our public schools and make them better."

House GOP moderates and Democrats have blocked vouchers or tuition tax credits since 2000, when the controversial legislation became a perennial issue. The full House voted just once in 2005, and killed tuition tax credits 34-40, stunning advocates who thought they had the needed 38 votes, plus two to spare.

The 2006 election brought 19 new faces to the House.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com