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Vouchers: It’s about the children, not the money!

That’s the mantra of Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, who didn’t want to talk about how much money his national teachers’ union was going to give to its Utah affiliate, which is in a fierce ballot fight to get the country’s first universal voucher law off the books in Utah. This statewide referendum will be one of the most interesting education elections to watch on Nov. 6.

Last week, I asked him six different ways how much the NEA will spend to defeat vouchers. Weaver refused to bite, insisting that the real issue isn't money, but that vouchers will stand in the way of a good education for all students. “Any time you mention a dollar figure it has a negative impact,” he told me.

Campaign finance reports filed with the state offer some indication, showing the NEA donating $1.53 million to the Utah Education Association as of Sept. 17. In addition to national support, the UEA also received $57,700 in small-dollar donations from Utah teachers and a couple of legislators, plus donations from the teachers’ unions in Maine, Colorado, Ohio, and Wyoming. An umbrella group of public school advocates, Utahns for Public Schools, collected thousands more in teacher donations.

The opposing side, represented chiefly by Parents for Choice in Education , has raised less, at about $330,000. Who’s funding the pro-voucher side? Most of the donations are from within Utah, but a $50,000 donation came from New York City investor Thomas Kempner, Jr. The CEO of the shopping site Overstock.com, Patrick Byrne of Park City, Utah, donated $90,000 to the voucher group, plus $200,000—the only donation—to the Informed Voter Project, which is in favor of vouchers.

Notably absent from the campaign finance reports is the national pro-voucher group All Children Matter, based in Michigan, which helped defeat legislative candidates in Utah last year. Don’t look for that group to stay quiet in Utah for too long. My experience from covering this group, which is involved in elections in more than a dozen states, is that it comes in late in the game, and with hard-hitting, controversial ads. The group's tactics have gotten it in trouble this year in Wisconsin and Ohio.

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