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The Tightrope a Governor Walks

The referendum on private school vouchers in Utah, which is the most heated education battle in an otherwise quiet off-election year, could provide an endless supply of fodder for this blog. But Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s entry into this debate merits special attention.

Gov. Huntsman, a Republican, is extremely popular in Utah and also a supporter of vouchers. He signed the bill into law, which would give every public school student a voucher, worth up to $3,000, for private school tuition. Proponents of the universal voucher program--the first in the country--have been quietly grousing about Huntsman's lack of involvement in the campaign to pass the referendum to uphold the law. I heard about this during my recent trip to Utah -- and you'll be able to read an in-depth story about the voucher campaign when my story appears in the next issue of Education Week. Look for it online here in the next few days.

Given Huntsman's popularity, voucher supporters believe a strong message from him could convince some voters to vote for the voucher program on Nov. 6.

Well, the governor finally made his first official entry into the pro-voucher debate earlier this week at a press conference with fellow Republicans from the legislature. But even then, he didn't give the program a ringing endorsement. While declaring his support for the law, he didn't ask Utahns to vote for it, adding that his children will remain in their public schools, according to news accounts.

Gov. Huntsman is a public-school supporter, and surely he's also a reader of the polls -- which indicate a majority of Utahns oppose vouchers. But at the same time, Huntsman had to appease fellow Republicans, and supporters of vouchers, by finally coming out of the wings and being part of the campaign to uphold vouchers. Being loyal to one's party and to the general voting public is the fine line governors must often walk. However, given the less-than-resounding endorsement he gave, it's unlikely his involvement will do any good.

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