Opponents of school vouchers in Arizona turn in signatures to get bill on November ballot
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Foes of universal school vouchers in Arizona turned in 141,714 signatures Friday to give voters the last word.
But whether it gets that far depends on what happens next.
Hanging in the balance is the plan approved earlier this year by Republican-controlled legislature to provide vouchers of taxpayer funds to any of the 1.1 million students in public schools to instead attend private or parochial schools. Those vouchers, which average close to $7,000, also could be used for costs of home schooling.
State and county election officials perform the first reviews to determine, after invalid signatures are eliminated, whether there are still 118,823 left in the petitions gathered by Save Our Schools to hold up enactment until the 2024 general election. That's when voters would get to decide whether to ratify or reject it.
After that, however, supporters of what are formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts will be doing their own examination of the petitions with an eye on disqualifying even more signatures -- and leaving the referendum petition drive short of the required number.
"We will be ready to defend the parents of our state,'' said Steve Smith, state director of American Federation for Children.
"We would very much make sure that the signatures that are turned in, that those are valid and there's not an attempt to derail this program through invalid and improperly collected signatures,'' added Matt Beienburg, director of education policy, Goldwater Institute. "So that would be very much, I think, a starting point.''
Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, acknowledged that the signatures submitted provide a margin of error of just 20%. And companies that collect petitions generally seek at 25% cushion.
She said, though, organizers are confident there are enough valid signatures. And at least part of that, Lewis said, is because virtually all of the collection was done by volunteers who, as a whole, have a higher validity rate.
And there's something else.
Opponents of ballot measures routinely seek to disqualify petitions gathered by paid circulators who are required to comply with a host of technical requirements. Those rules, however, don't apply to volunteers.
Even if it clears all those hurdles, there's one more potential snag to getting that public vote in 2024.
Legislative supporters could simply vote next year to repeal the legislation, make a few changes, and reenact it. That act would make the petition drive legally moot, forcing foes to start over again next year.
The record suggests voter antipathy toward making more students eligible for vouchers.
Lawmakers approved a vast expansion of the program in 2017, only to have Save Our School refer the measure to the 2018 ballot. It was rejected by a margin of close to 2 to 1.
But House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said that occurred because some voucher supporters opposed the 2017 plan because it had some limits on the number of vouchers that would have been available. He said they feared that voter ratification would have frozen that limit into law.
By contrast, he said, the new version has no limits, eliminating that concern.
Lewis rejected Toma's explanation -- and his contention that people are more likely to support universal vouchers now than they were four years ago.
"I was out in the field in 2017 and 2018 and people were confused,'' she told Capitol Media Services. "They were like, 'What's a voucher?' ''
Now, she said, there is a better understanding of the concept of using tax dollars to send children to private and parochial schools.
"They know exactly what this is,'' Lewis said. "And they don't want it,'' Lewis said.
Central to the issue is the question of whether public funds should be used for private education.
"At the end of the day the purpose of the ESA program and school choice is to give parents the ability to pursue the best education for their kids, regardless of what form it comes in,'' said Beienburg. "We are focused on individual student aid, not an institution or a particular form of education.''
Lewis acknowledged that there is some sentiment for the concept of "school choice.''
"But they don't want their dollars going to unaccountable private schools,'' she said.
One version of the legislation included a requirement for annual testing of the students who get those tax dollars, similar to what occurs in public schools, with results reported on a school-by-school basis. But that requirement was removed before the final bill went to Gov. Doug Ducey for his signature. Beienburg said such testing isn't necessary.
"Nobody is going to be a stronger advocate for their children than a parent,'' he said.
Lewis said that's based on a false premise.
"I've been a teacher in Arizona for 12 years and a parent for just as long,'' she said.
"And I can tell you that parents don't know as well as teachers whether they're learning,'' Lewis continued, saying schools need certified teachers who can make those evaluations.
And then there's the question of who is picking up the tab.
"If a school wants to take public funds, they need to take public accountability,'' she said.
Backers have promoted universal vouchers as a way for families of limited means to have access to the same education choices as those who already can afford private school tuition.
Lewis said she understands that sentiment. And she said lawmakers could have crafted a measure with "means testing'' to limit the new vouchers to those in real need.
"And we encouraged them to do so,'' Lewis said. "But they wrote a bill that benefits all students.''
That has come into sharp focus with the state Department of Education reporting that more than 75% of the 10,338 applications for the new universal vouchers received so far have come from students not now in public schools, leading state officials to conclude these were students whose parents already were paying to send them to private schools. At about $7,000 apiece, that comes out to more than $54 million.
That figure exceeds the $30 million that legislative budget analysts told lawmakers before they enacted the law would be the first-year cost of providing vouchers to those already in private schools or those being home schooled. That doesn't count another $2.2 million in new administrative costs.
And by the third year, the report said, the price tag for paying for kids picking up vouchers versus paying their own way will approach $120 million.
That is above and beyond the $176 million the state is now paying for vouchers for students who have been eligible under prior standards.
Vouchers, first approved in 2011, were limited to students whose special needs could not be met in public schools.
Since that time there has been an incremental expansion of eligibility, to the point where vouchers are now available to foster children, children of military families, reservation residents and students in schools rated D or F.
The new law would scrap all preconditions, potentially allowing vouchers to go to all 1.1 million youngsters now in public schools.
"With the current status of applicants, it is not achieving those goals,'' said state schools chief Kathy Hoffman. "Instead, it is just a taxpayer funded coupon for the wealthy.''
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