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Utah Voucher Post-Mortem: From the Two Money Men

In the wake of Tuesday's resounding "no" vote on vouchers in Utah, I thought I'd get some analysis from the two men responsible for financing most of the $7-million-plus political battle (which was more expensive than the state's last governor's race).

And they are: the National Education Association's Reg Weaver, and Overstock.com's Patrick Byrne.

Byrne, the Utah resident who founded and still leads the Internet shopping site, gave more than $2 million (including some contributions from his family) to the pro-voucher cause.

He had a very terse, concise answer for what might have made a difference in swinging more voters to the pro-voucher side: "A governor who stood for the things in which he claims to believe," he wrote in an e-mail to me yesterday. He's referring to the popular Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican who supports vouchers but took a much-criticized back seat during the nasty referendum campaign.

And Byrne has a fairly doomsday view of where education reform and improvement in Utah is headed: "Without change, Utah is on a 30-year course to second-world status."

Weaver, the president of the 3.2-million-member NEA, which made a successful investment by spending more than $3 million in Utah to defeat vouchers, was — predictably — in a better mood. He offered this take on the voucher outcome, drawing a parallel to the No Child Left Behind Act: "The more they know, the less they like."

But the NEA isn't going to rest on its laurels, either. "As long as you have people with megabucks, they're going to try to find a way to deny [opportunities] for children," said Weaver, who was kind enough to call me yesterday from Sweden, where he's attending a meeting of leaders from teachers' unions from across the world.

Sweden was a fitting scene for his side of the conversation since it has countrywide vouchers. Jorgen Lindholm, a leader in Sweden's national teachers' union, told me yesterday that his union opposed vouchers when they were first introduced in his country in the early 1990s, but the union has learned to adjust to them. And, worth noting, public schools — and the Swedish teachers' union — continue to thrive in Sweden despite the presence of vouchers.

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