PHOENIX (AP) — Public school advocates opposed to a massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher system, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in July, submitted enough signatures Friday to block it from taking effect. .
The law which expands the program to every child in the state, will be suspended rather than taking effect on Saturday. If the review finds that Save Our Schools Arizona has met the requirement of nearly 119,000 valid signatures — and if those signatures survive any legal challenges filed by voucher advocates — it will remain locked in until the November 2024 election.
Beth Lewis, executive director of the grassroots group that formed after a similar expansion in 2017 and successfully challenged at the polls, said Friday that the group had submitted 141,714 signatures. That’s less than they’d hoped, since groups trying to get legislation to voters or put initiatives on the ballot typically aim for a minimum 25% cushion.
Voters rejected the earlier expansion by a 2/3 majority in the 2018 election.
Lewis placed some of the blame on Ducey, who held onto the bill for 10 days after the legislature adjourned, reducing the amount of time opponents had to collect signatures from 90 to 80 days.
“We certainly wish we had the 10 days Ducey stole from the voters to build our cushion,” Lewis said. “But we have enough to be confident that with the authenticity of our signatures, we can turn them in, get them processed, and get them on the ballot.”
Voucher opponents say the program siphons money from the state’s public schools, which have been underfunded for decades and educate the vast majority of the state’s students, even though Ducey and the Legislature have poured money into the system over the past few years. Supporters of the voucher program say it allows parents to choose the best school for their children. Ducey is a major proponent of “school choice” and has touted the expansion at the ceremonial signing of the bill in August.
Advocates of expanding the state’s voucher program, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, have organized to try to convince voters not to sign petitions. They showed up at petition-signing events with “I refuse to sign” signs and called businesses to tell them the petition-distributors were in their parking lots.
Among those supporting the expansion are national “school choice” groups such as the American Federation for Children, founded and once led by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary in the Trump administration.
Scott Smith, a former Republican senator who is now the AFC’s state director, said he expects “any” effort to defeat the voter referendum, either in the courts or at the ballot box.
“Rest assured that no matter what happens, I’m sure others and parents will do everything we can to protect their rights to raise their children the way they see fit,” Smith said.
Under the state constitution, voters can block most laws passed by the legislature by collecting signatures. To allow for this, most new laws take effect 90 days after the end of the Legislature, which is the deadline for referrals.
Although about a third of Arizona students qualify for the existing voucher program — mostly those who live in low-income areas — only about 12,000 students statewide currently use the system.
The extension signed by Ducey would allow every parent in Arizona to take public money that currently goes to the K-12 public school system and use it to pay for their children’s private school tuition, homeschooling supplies or other educational expenses.
When the law goes into effect, Arizona already has the broadest education options in the country and will have the most comprehensive voucher system.
An estimated 60,000 private school students currently enrolled and about 38,000 home-schooled students will immediately be eligible for up to $7,000 a year, though a small number already receive vouchers. All 1.1 million students who attend traditional district and charter schools would also be eligible to leave their public schools and be paid to attend private schools.
More than 10,000 applications have been received since the state education department opened a new portal for parents to submit applications under the universal law.
Many parents of private school students currently receive tuition money through one of several tax credit programs. However, it pays less, so many are likely to switch to a voucher.
Lewis and other opponents of the program say they worry that $1 billion in funding for the public school system could be lost. K-12 schools currently receive about $8 billion a year in state funding.
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