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Mormons and Vouchers

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I'm on assignment in Utah, which is in the middle of a fierce campaign over school vouchers. On Nov. 6, voters will decide whether the country's first universal voucher program will stay on the books or be defeated. The program would give a voucher to every public school student, valued at between $500 and $3,000, for use at a private school. The bill narrowly passed the Utah legislature this year, was signed by Gov. Jon Hunstman, Jr., a Republican, but then opponents were able to gather enough signatures to put the measure up for a "citizens' veto" vote next month.

Utah is an interesting place for such a big showdown over school choice. It's extremely conservative and anti-union, exemplified by a bit of a trivia someone told me at a local Rotary Club meeting this week: Utah was the only state where Bill Clinton came in third for president in 1992 (behind George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.)

And, more than half of the population is Mormon.

Though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, hasn't taken a stance on the voucher issue, the church's teachings will certainly have an effect on the ballot initiative. The church doesn't operate its own K-12 private schools in the United States, as the Roman Catholic Church does, although Mormon students do receive religious instruction during the weekdays in high school. A helpful guide at the Mormon headquarters told me why the church doesn't operate its own private schools here: Because public schools are already high quality. She did explain that the Mormon church runs schools in the places where that isn't the case, in the country of Tonga, for example, and in New Zealand (although those Mormon-run schools are closing soon becaue the public schools there have improved.)

So even though the Mormon faith seems to support public schools, at least in the United States, the faith also teaches about civic participation and "free agency" -- or making your own decisions. So in that regard, giving parents more freedom to choose an education path for their children may be appealing, too.

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One thing I learned living in Utah, was that the LDS build and operate religious education centers adjacent to the public middle and high schools. The LDS children rotate between the public and LDS buildings as part of their school day. While that is the model in Utah, I don't know how things are handled in other states with less LDS influence.

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