Arizona’s School Choice Expansion Very Likely to Be Halted as Signatures Mount for ESA Blockage

Arizona’s historic legislation expanding school choice to every child in the state appears to be on hold right now, as a ballot measure aimed at stopping the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) expansion will probably make the 2024 ballot. Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ) said its signature collectors turned in 141,714 signatures for “Stop Voucher Expansion” to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Friday. Only 118,823 valid signatures were required by September 24, leaving room for error with bad signatures.

Jenny Clark, the founder of Arizona-based Love Your School and a new appointee to the Arizona State Board of Education whose children participate in the ESAs, told The Arizona Sun Times, “Today 11,000 Arizona students had the opportunity of an ESA put on hold. Every day that a child struggles in a school that’s not working for them is detrimental. But this is far from over. We will be monitoring the signature verification process, and continuing to walk alongside Arizona families and their children.”

Voters may refer new legislation to the ballot for voter approval if they gather the signatures of registered Arizona voters equal to at least 5 percent of all votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Opponents had 80 days to gather 118,823 signatures to pause the law.

The law, HB 2853, expands ESAs to all children in grades 1-12, who would qualify to receive over $6,500 per year for private school, homeschooling, “learning pods,” tutoring, or any other kinds of educational service that would best fit students’ needs (kindergartners receive $4,000). The ESAs differ from traditional school vouchers, which can only be used at private schools. Previously, the program was limited to children in failing public schools or public schools that were not able to meet their special needs.

SOSAZ argues that ESAs take away funding from the public schools, but the program ultimately saves taxpayers considerable money, since public school children receive about $14,000 per pupil in funding, well over twice the amount ESAs provide. SOSAZ points out that Arizona ranks 48th in school funding and 47th in spending, but the state is also ranked number one for academic growth and charter schools. The Heritage Foundation’s Education Freedom Report Card ranks Arizona first in the nation for education choice and second behind Florida for educational freedom overall.

A group organically formed to combat the citizens’ referendum, Decline to Sign Arizona, created awareness about the initiative, warning voters not to sign petitions to get it on the ballot. Parents went to locations where SOSAZ was collecting signatures and explained to passers-by why it was a deceitful measure.

The effort became heated at times, with reports of SOSAZ supporters swearing at opponents. SOSAZ Director Beth Lewis called several state legislators “MAGA extremists trolling SOSAZ events & harassing,” prompting State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) to fire back for challenging her free speech.

SOSAZ successfully blocked another voucher expansion in 2017 with Prop. 305, preventing 30,000 students from becoming eligible for vouchers. That year, they had an 87 percent validation rate of their signatures. This year, they only need an 83 percent validation rate to have enough eligible signatures. The average validity rate for groups collecting petition signatures is 75 percent, prompting school choice reporter Jason Bedrick to question whether the referendum will actually make the ballot.

A recent poll found that 66 percent of Arizonans and 75 percent of parents of school-age children said they support ESAs. Support for school choice is high around the nation due to the deleterious effects caused to schoolchildren by COVID-19 shutdowns. According to the Arizona Department of Education, after the program was opened to all children on August 16, 10,338 students applied under the new universal eligibility.

Legal challenges are expected next from organizations challenging the signatures. If the measure doesn’t make the ballot, the new law goes into effect on September 24.

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Rachel Alexander is a reporter at The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Rachel on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]

 

 

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