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Letter to the Editor: an open letter from the attorney general to Utah educators

By MARK SHURTLEFF Utah Attorney General

Many teachers have approached me about the hurt and confusion they have felt over the voucher debate and anger at my perceived role. I understand the concern because my parents are retired teachers and I and my children are the products of public education. The high stakes and emotions have made it difficult for many good people to differentiate between the law and the end in mind. Some biased and erroneous reports have added to the confusion and dissension. The fact is I did not initiate nor pursue a particular outcome regarding vouchers. My only interest is that if people disagree with a law, they obey it or use legal means to try and change the law.
Neither I, nor my office, was involved in the voucher debate until Governor Huntsman asked for an opinion on the effect of House Bill 174 and whether it could stand on its own should HB 148, the other voucher bill, be rejected on a referendum vote. State law required me to give my legal opinion, and to begin with the presumption that HB 174 was valid.
With the help of several attorneys within our office (Democrats and Republicans, voucher proponents and opponents) we arrived at the conclusion that HB 174 was imperfect, but it still contained enough information to be considered a valid law. It was passed as a separate bill and signed by the governor and was not challenged by the referendum process. The Utah Supreme Court reached a different conclusion. I respect the judicial process and am pleased there is clarity for voters.
My record shows that I am not afraid to buck political power brokers or go against popular opinion to see that the law is followed. Let me share with you some examples of where I attempted to do that concerning vouchers:
•By state law and the Constitution, I am designated as the sole legal advisor to the State School Board. I gave board members several options on how to get this issue quickly and legally before the courts for a remedy, and in a manner that best protected them in doing their duty. However, the board rejected this advice.
•The school board turned to me as their attorney, and cited their own governing law to request my answers to 25 legal questions about the voucher program. That same law required the board to accept my opinion as “correct and final” until a court ruled otherwise. The board did not wait for a court ruling and again rejected my advice.
•Some board members also used two “special assistant attorneys general” to file a legal brief with the Supreme Court that contradicted the position of the Attorney General’s Office. A special assistant attorney general is required to follow the legal direction of the Attorney General and thereby become answerable to “the people.” Those lawyers could no longer represent our office after creating such a clear conflict of interest.
You chose your profession because you care and know the importance of a child’s education. I am certain that most educators teach their students to obey the law and respect the democratic process. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall once said, “Education is not the teaching of the three R’s. Education is the teaching of the overall citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens, and above all to learn to obey the law.” I trust you’ll agree that if the means includes breaking the law, then the end will never justify those means -not even when it comes to vouchers.

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