State Representative Ben Toma (R-Maricopa) released a statement of celebration Monday following news that Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ) allegedly failed to provide enough signatures to force a referendum on Arizona’s universal Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) law.
“Chalk up another major victory for Arizona families wanting the freedom to choose the education that best meets their child’s needs,” Toma said in a press release. “School choice is increasingly popular with Arizona parents, especially those whose children are stuck in a failing school, so I find it baffling that anyone would try so hard to take that choice away from parents. It’s good that they have apparently failed.”
However, the Secretary of State’s office has not made any official statement on the status of the referendum, and it is still reviewing signatures, so the law’s fate still hangs in the air. If SOSAZ provides the needed signatures, the law will not go into effect and will be placed on the 2024 ballot, where voters would decide.
That scenario, if it occurs, would hold up the ESA expansion for another two years. According to the Arizona Department of Education, nearly 11,000 families have applied for an ESA since the universal application opened on August 16.
Andrew Wilder, communications director for the AZ House GOP, told The Arizona Sun Times that Toma and the rest of the House GOP members are confident the law will go into effect despite no official statement from the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.
Toma further said that SOSAZ’s efforts were built on lies about ESAs and that the new law will help Arizona schools.
“Proponents of the failed referendum built their effort on the fallacy that public schools are harmed by Arizona’s ESA program. That of course is untrue. In Arizona, we have seen that when funding follows the student, the performance of schools and students has improved. Moreover, the dramatic increase in K-12 education funding led by the Republican Legislature in the last several years demonstrates our commitment to all schools and, in turn, we expect them to continue to serve and improve the academic achievement of Arizona’s students,” Toma said, concluding his statement.
The law in question, House Bill (HB) 2853, sponsored by Toma, was set to go into effect on September 24; however, SOSAZ claimed to have achieved 141,714 voluntary signatures. SOSAZ Director Beth Lewis touted the achievement as the most signatures achieved by a citizen’s referendum.
In Arizona, voters may refer new legislation to the ballot for approval if they gather the signatures of registered Arizona voters, equivalent to five percent of all votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election.
Yet, the story did not end there. After SOSAZ submitted its signed petitions to the Arizona Secretary of State, an Arizona parent and school choice activist, Christine Accurso, sent a public records request to the Secretary of State’s office. According to the document produced by election officials, Accurso said, the group may have submitted significantly fewer signatures than initially thought.
SOSAZ reported submitting 10,200 petition sheets which could hold up to 15 signatures each; however, but based on what Accurso received from the Secretary of State’s office, the actual number of petitions submitted is 8,175.
Through a public records request I was given access to all of the 🆘 petitions. They uploaded 8,175 yesterday. When I inquired if more would be uploaded, they responded. ⬇️
It seems mathematically impossible to reach the required # of 118,832, but we will know very soon. pic.twitter.com/dcX0OowHTF
— Christine Accurso (@ArizonaCatholic) September 26, 2022
Based on the number of petitions submitted, the Goldwater Institute commented that SOSAZ likely only submitted 88,866 signatures. SOSAZ needed 118,823 signatures, far more than were allegedly obtained.
As for the ESAs, any parent with a school-aged child can apply for one. Parents will receive roughly $7,000 per child every year. These funds can be used on a list of educational needs, including private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, educational therapy, and tutoring.
– – –
Neil Jones is a reporter for The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Neil on Twitter. Email tips to neiljo[email protected].
Photo “Ben Toma” by Ben Toma. Background Photo “Arizona Capitol” by Pima County Public Library.