Voucher system expansion for private schools stalled in Arizona

Public school advocates who oppose a massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher system enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in July filed enough signatures on Friday to prevent it from taking effect.

The law, which expands the program to all children in the state, will be suspended instead of taking effect on Saturday. If a review finds Save Our Schools Arizona has met the requirement of nearly 119,000 valid signatures — and if those signatures survive any legal challenges filed by the voucher lenders — it will remain blocked until the November 2024 election.

Beth Lewis, executive director of the core group formed when a similar expansion passed in 2017 and was successfully challenged at the polls, said Friday the group had garnered 141,714 signatures. That’s less than they’d hoped, since groups that try to push voter legislation or get initiatives on the ballot typically aim for at least a 25% cushion.

Voters rejected the previous expansion by a 2/3 majority in the 2018 election.

Lewis put some of the blame on Ducey, who kept the bill for 10 days after the Legislative Assembly adjourned, a move that cut the time opponents had to collect signatures from 90 to 80 days .

“We really wish we had those 10 days that Ducey stole from voters to build our cushion,” Lewis said. “But we have enough to be confident that with our signatures valid, we can hand over and get through the processing and get it on the ballot.”

Opponents of the vouchers say the program diverts money from the state’s public schools, which have been underfunded for decades and educate the vast majority of students in the state, although Ducey and the legislature have injected l money in the system over the past few years. Proponents of the voucher program say it allows parents to choose the best school for their children. Ducey is a major backer of ‘school choice’ and has touted the expansion at a bill signing ceremony in August.

Supporters of the expansion of the state voucher program, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, have 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 petition dispensers were in their parking lots.

Among those backing the expansion are national “school choice” groups like the American Federation for Children, founded and once led by Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s education secretary.

Scott Smith, a former Republican state senator who is now AFC state director, said he expects “every” effort to defeat voters’ referendum, whether in court or at the ballot box.

“Rest assured, whatever happens, I’m sure it’s safe to say myself and others and parents will do whatever we can to protect their rights to educate their children as they see best “Smith said.

Under the state constitution, voters can block most laws passed by the Legislative Assembly by collecting signatures. To allow for this, most new laws come into force 90 days after the legislature adjourns, which is the deadline for a remand.

Although about a third of Arizona students are eligible for the existing voucher program — primarily those who live in low-income areas — only about 12,000 students statewide currently use the system.

The expansion signed by Ducey will allow all parents in Arizona to take public money now sent to the K-12 public school system and use it to pay for their children’s tuition in private schools, the home school materials or other education costs.

Arizona already has the most extensive education options in the nation and will have the most comprehensive voucher system if 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 a year, though a small number are already getting vouchers. The 1.1 million students who attend traditional district and charter schools would also qualify to leave their public schools and receive money to attend private schools.

Since the state Department of Education opened a new portal for parents to apply under the Universal Eligibility Act, more than 10,000 applications have been received.

Many parents of private school students currently obtain tuition through one of the many tax credit programs. It pays less, however, many are likely to upgrade to a voucher.

Lewis and other opponents of the program say they fear up to $1 billion could be lost in funding for the public school system. K-12 schools currently receive about $8 billion a year in public funding.

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