PHOENIX (TNZT) – Public school proponents opposing a massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher system, enacted by Republican-controlled legislature and signed in July by Republican administration Doug Ducey, filed enough signatures Friday to to prevent it from taking effect.
The law, which will extend the program to every child in the state, will be suspended instead of going into effect Saturday. If a review shows that Save Our Schools Arizona has met the requirement for nearly 119,000 valid signatures — and if those signatures survive any court challenges filed by voucher backers — it will remain blocked until the November 2024 election.
Beth Lewis, executive director of the grassroots group formed when a similar expansion went through in 2017 and was successfully challenged in the polls, said Friday that the group had submitted 141,714 signatures. That’s less than they’d hoped, as groups trying to pass bills to voters or get initiatives on the ballot usually aim for at least a 25% kiss.
Voters rejected the previous extension by a 2/3 majority in the 2018 elections.
Lewis blamed part of the blame on Ducey, who held the bill for 10 days after the legislature was adjourned, a move that cut the amount of time opponents had to collect signatures from 90 to 80 days.
“We certainly wish we’d had those 10 days that Ducey stole from the voters to build our pillow,” Lewis said. “But we have enough to make sure we can hand in the validity of our signatures and get through the processing and get it on the ballot.”
Voucher opponents say the program is diverting money from the state’s public schools, which have been underfunded for decades and educate the vast majority of the state’s students, though Ducey and the legislature have pumped money into the system in recent years. Supporters of the voucher program say it allows parents to choose the best school for their children. Ducey is a major “school choice” financier, praising the expansion during a bill signing ceremony in August.
Supporters of the expansion of the state’s voucher program, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, organized to try to persuade voters not to sign the petitions. They showed up at signing events with “Refuse to sign” signs and called businesses to tell them there were petitions in their parking lots.
Among those behind the expansion are national “school choice” groups such as the American Federation for Children, founded and once led by Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education in the Trump administration.
Scott Smith, a former Republican senator who is now the state director of the AFC, said he expects “anything and everything” efforts to beat the voter referendum, either in the courts or at the polls.
“Rest assured, whatever happens, I’m sure it’s safe to say that myself and others and the parents will do everything we can to protect their rights to raise their children the way they see best,” said Smith.
Under the state constitution, voters can block most laws passed by the legislature by collecting signatures. To make that happen, most new laws go into effect 90 days after the legislature is adjourned, which is the TNZT for a referral.
Although about a third of Arizona students qualify for the existing voucher program — primarily those living in low-income areas — only about 12,000 students statewide are currently using the system.
The extension that Ducey has signed will allow any parent in Arizona to use government funds now sent to the K-12 public school system to pay for their children’s private school fees, home school supplies, or other education costs.
Arizona already has the most comprehensive education options in the nation and will have the most comprehensive voucher system when the law goes into effect.
An estimated 60,000 currently enrolled private school students and about 38,000 home-schooled students would be immediately eligible for up to $7,000 per year, although a small number are already getting vouchers. All 1.1 million students attending traditional district and charter schools would also be eligible to drop out of public school and receive money to attend private schools.
Since the state education department opened a new portal for parents to apply under the Universal Admission Act, more than 10,000 applications have been received.
Many parents of private school students currently receive tuition through one of several tax credit programs. However, that pays less, so many are likely to switch to a voucher.
Lewis and other opponents of the program say they are concerned that as much as $1 billion could be lost from funding the public school system. K-12 schools currently receive about $8 billion a year in government funding.