ALEX COHEN, host:
And now to local politics and a battle over education in Utah. Earlier this year, lawmakers approved tax-paid vouchers available to every kid in the state so they could go to private school. To some parents that may sound like a dream come true, but to other parents and to many teachers that caused worry about the effect of these vouchers on the future of the state's public schools. So they've organized to put a referendum to end the vouchers on the ballot next month.
Julie Rose of member station KCPW in Salt Lake City reports.
JULIE ROSE: Parents and public schoolteachers kicked off their campaign against school vouchers this summer aboard a big yellow school bus.
Unidentified Female: All right. Everybody on the bus. We're moving out.
ROSE: The teachers union has marshaled all of its resources to fight vouchers, says Utah Education Association president Kim Campbell.
Ms. KIMILEE CAMPBELL (President, Utah Education Association): This is the battleground for the future of public schools in the nation. You know, are we going to go down this road towards privatization or are we going to stay strong and committed to our public schools?
ROSE: The anti-voucher effort has attracted national attention and money. The National Education Association has already pumped $1.5 million into the Utah campaign to defeat vouchers.
NEA president Reg Weaver says more money will follow.
Mr. REGINALD WEAVER (President, National Education Association): Anywhere it rears its head, we want to be there to work with the community to let them know that this is not the best way to provide quality public education for all kids.
ROSE: So far voucher supporters lag behind the teachers union and public school community in their own fundraising. They report only $500,000 in their war chest, much of it from wealthy individuals around the country who support school choice.
Spokesperson Leah Barker says she's not worried about matching the anti-voucher effort dollar-for-dollar.
Ms. LEAH BARKER (Parents for Choice in Education): No amount of money in the world is going to be able to convince Utah parents that they aren't smart enough to make a good choice for their kids.
Mr. RICHARD EYRE (Valuesparenting.com): There is one good reason to be against vouchers, and that is because you fear competition. That's essentially what unions do, is to protect the weakest of their members.
ROSE: That's Richard Eyre, an author and parents rights advocate. The pro-voucher camp in Utah has made him their public face. Eyre has nine kids and all went to public school.
Mr. EYRE: I love the public schools. I'm advocating options. One of my nine I probably would have sent to a different school because I was unsatisfied. But eight of the nine ain't bad. So why be afraid of giving them another option?
ROSE: With less than a month until the vote, Utahans don't seem to be buying that line of thought. Recent polls show voters are against vouchers by as much as 60 percent. But there are also many voters undecided. That is fueling conversations in parks, community centers and even in the drop-off lane of this Salt Lake Elementary School.
Here are parents Heidi Cole(ph) and Coleen Deshaun(ph).
Have you made up your minds about vouchers?
Ms. HEIDI COLE (Parent): Yes. I'm not going vote for them. For me, my kids are going to public, so I don't want the money to go to private.
Ms. COLEEN DESHAUN: I think private school is important because you have a little bit more control of - more one-on-one with the children, especially ones that need it.
Ms. MICHELE McNEIL (Education Week): This is a new twist.
ROSE: Education Week reporter Michele McNeil says the referendum on vouchers on Utah is one of the biggest education stories of the year. It's unprecedented to have such a universal school choice law passed by legislators and then put to the voters for a final say.
Ms. McNEIL: A lot of times the people who are opposed to vouchers will go to the legal route to get an existing law repealed. In this case, they're going directly to the voters.
ROSE: Whatever the outcome of Utah's statewide referendum this November, both sides of the voucher debate agree its impact will resonate far beyond the boundaries of this desert state.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Salt Lake City.
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