/ Modified sep 26, 2022 5:17 p.m.

Signature numbers debated in Arizona voucher challenge

Supporters of the ESA expansion say not enough signatures were collected to block the law.

360 empty school desks An empty classroom at Gridley Middle School in Tucson. November 2020.
AZPM Staff

Supporters of a massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher system said Monday that public school advocates have failed to file enough valid signatures to temporarily block the law ahead of a proposed 2024 ballot referendum.

But the grassroots group said they “will await accurate numbers” from the Secretary of State’s office regarding their challenge to the Republican-backed law that incentives families to pull their children out of K-12 public schools.

“To be clear, there are no official numbers until the Secretary of State says there are, and the Secretary’s office is still in the early stages of carrying out its statutory obligation to review petition sheets,” Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said in a statement.

The group formed when a similar expansion passed in 2017 and was successfully challenged at the polls.

Lewis had announced Friday that the group had turned in 141,714 signatures in an effort to block the private school voucher expansion signed into law by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in July.

The law extends the program to every child in the state.

If a review finds that Save Our Schools Arizona has met the requirement for nearly 119,000 valid signatures — and if those signatures survive any court challenges filed by voucher backers — it will remain blocked until the November 2024 election.

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative and libertarian public policy think tank in Phoenix, said Save Our Schools “submitted just 88,866 signatures, according to petition sheets made available by the Secretary of State’s office” and has “fallen significantly short of the requisite 118,843 signatures needed to overturn the reform via ballot referendum.”

Victor Riches, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute, said “the preliminary results make it clear: Arizona families have rejected special interests’ attempts to take away their ability to choose the education that best meets their child’s unique needs.”

Although about a third of Arizona students qualify for the existing voucher program — mainly those living in low-income areas — only about 12,000 students statewide currently use the system.

The expansion Ducey signed will let every parent in Arizona take public money now sent to the K-12 public school system and use it to pay for their children’s private school tuition, homeschool materials or other education costs.

Arizona already has the most expansive education options in the nation and will have the most comprehensive voucher system if the law takes effect.

An estimated 60,000 currently-enrolled private school students and about 38,000 homeschooled students would immediately be eligible for up to $7,000 per year, although a small number already get vouchers.

All 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.

Lewis and other opponents of the program say they worry that as much as $1 billion could be lost from the public school system funding. K-12 schools currently get about $8 billion a year in state funding.

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