(Douglas C. Pizac ~ Associated Press)
SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah voters will decide Tuesday whether to adopt the country's first statewide school voucher program that would be open to anyone. The referendum could influence efforts elsewhere to use tax dollars for private school tuition.
Utah's voucher law would grant $500 to $3,000, depending on family income, for each child sent to private school. Unlike other voucher plans geared toward low-income students or those in failing schools, Utah's plan would be available to anyone, even affluent families in well-performing districts.
It's one of several noteworthy ballot measures confronting voters in six states in the off-year election. Topics include stem-cell research in New Jersey, gambling in Maine and a hefty cigarette tax increase in Oregon to fund health insurance for children.
Utah's hotly disputed voucher law won approval by one vote in the Republican-controlled Legislature in February. The law was suspended before taking effect when opponents gathered more than 120,000 signatures to force an up-or-down referendum vote.
Supporters of vouchers say the program would reduce crowding in public schools and give parents more choices. Children already in private schools would not qualify.
Critics say the money would be better spent in public schools. Utah spent less per student, $5,257, than any other state in 2005, according to the Census Bureau. And the school system must deal with the state's highest-in-the-nation birth rate.
Lawmakers set aside $9 million for the first year of the program, but the tab would grow.
Ceola Miller, a single mother with a fifth-grader at a suburban Salt Lake City public school, wants vouchers. Her daughter, Ebonee, switched from private school this year because tuition became unaffordable.
"I don't necessarily think the private school is better in any other way, except they have a smaller number of kids in the class. She gets more attention," Miller said. Her daughter is in a class of 33 now. In the private school, her class had 15 students.
To promote their positions, both sides have spent millions of dollars, much of it on television ads. Overstock.com chief executive Patrick Byrne and family members gave more than $2.7 million to the pro-voucher campaign. The National Education Association has spent more than $3.1 million to defeat it.
Public opinion polls show support for vouchers is around 40 percent.
Quin Monson, a Brigham Young University political science professor, believes Utah voters would embrace a more limited program targeting low- and middle-income families.
"If you're a state that has a referendum, you want to be a little less ambitious," he said.
Most voucher programs -- such as those in Milwaukee and Cleveland -- are aimed at low-income students in poorly performing schools. Some voucher advocates believe success in Utah will persuade other states to expand their programs or create new ones.
"It would certainly make states on the cusp of it, like Arizona and Texas, more likely to do so," said Clint Bolick, director of the Center for Constitutional Litigation at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.
"Louisiana just elected a very school-choice governor. I think Utah's program would reverberate in the bayous," Bolick said.
Among the noteworthy ballot items elsewhere:
-- In Oregon, a measure to raise the cigarette tax by 84.5 cents a pack -- to $2.02 -- to fund health insurance for about 100,000 children now lacking coverage. Tobacco companies opposing the measure have outspent supporters by a 4-1 margin, contributing nearly $12 million. The campaign has, in many ways, mirrored the debate in Congress over the Democrats' vetoed proposal to boost spending on children's health care by raising the federal cigarette tax.
-- In New Jersey, a measure authorizing the state to borrow $450 million over 10 years to finance stem-cell research. The Roman Catholic Church and anti-abortion groups oppose the measure, which was placed on the ballot by the Legislature with strong backing from Gov. Jon Corzine.
-- In Washington, a measure requiring that any tax increase by the Legislature must win a two-thirds majority.
-- In Texas, a proposal to create a cancer research institute and authorize up to $3 billion in bonds over 10 years to finance it.
-- In Maine, a measure that would allow the Passamaquoddy Indians to operate a racetrack casino with up to 1,500 slot machines in the hard-up town of Calais.