Petition drive begins to scuttle school vouchers

Opponents have launched a petition drive to stall – then kill – the implementation of the most comprehensive system of private and parochial school vouchers in the nation.

Gov. Doug Ducey earlier this month signed the measure, saying, “Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools.

“Every family in Arizona should have access to a high-quality education with dedicated teachers,’’ he continued. “This is truly a win for all K-12 students.’’

And the governor has said the law, which will allow any of the 1.1 million children in public schools to get what are called “empowerment scholarship accounts,’’ will make Arizona the “gold standard for educational freedom.’’

Ducey’s blessing was never in doubt. He has signed every voucher expansion bill that has come to his desk since becoming governor in 2015.

But it’s not the last word.

Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said signature gathering is underway to force the measure onto the November 2024 – which would put the voucher system on hold until at least 2025.

The organization of teachers and education groups has until Sept. 23 to gather at least 118,823 valid signatures on petitions which would keep the new law from taking effect until the next general election. And given that date would be too late to put the issue on the November ballot, that effectively would put the whole program on hold until at least November 2024.

Lewis said, though, what’s needed is a more permanent solution.

“Arizona voters are absolutely exhausted with this nonsense,’’ she told Capitol Media Services.

What started out in 2011 as a program to provide an alternative to public school for students with disabilities and special needs has grown as supporters have succeeded in adding more and more categories.

The current law now provides vouchers which typically are in the range of about $7,000 to children from foster homes, military families, living on tribal reservations and attending schools rated D or F.

About 11,775 students currently get such vouchers.

The law that Ducey signed would remove all the restrictions so any of the 1.1 million students in public schools could get public funding to attend a private or parochial school. Parents who home school also would be in line for those funds.

Lewis said the referendum drive should come as no surprise.

Lawmakers approved a large expansion in 2017. Her organizations got the signatures to put that plan on hold until the 2018 election when voters quashed the legislation by a margin of 2-1.

House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, the architect of this year’s plan, said what happened in 2018 is irrelevant.

He said some voucher supporters actually voted against that earlier plan specifically because it did not actually make all students eligible for vouchers. Instead, to get the votes, supporters had to agree to a cap of about 30,000 vouchers by 2021, a cap that would remain in place unless and until lawmakers decided otherwise.

More to the point, Toma said had the measure been approved, it would have been frozen in law. That’s because the Voter Protection Act in the Arizona Constitution precludes lawmakers from repealing whatever has been enacted at the ballot and restricts alterations only to measures that “further the purpose’’ of the original bill.

Lewis called Toma’s explanation of the failure of voucher expansion in 2018 “complete hogwash.’’

The lobbying of state lawmakers to approve the measure featured a parade of parents and children who said they are doing a lot better in private schools. The public campaign is likely to follow the same script.

Lewis said that won’t work for a simple reason: Nothing in the referendum would take vouchers away from students who already get them.

What the law would do is make more students eligible for the state dollars. And, more to the point, that would include students whose parents already pay to send their children to private schools.

Estimates are that about 85,000 of these children would switch to state funding by the 2024-2025 school year at a cost of about $118 million a year.

That does not bother supporters of the plan, including the governor, who was already promoting the plan on Wednesday on KTAR, even before he signed it.

“Everybody listening that has a child when this law goes into effect will have access to their taxpayer dollars to send their child to the school of their choice,’’ Ducey said.

“We’re the No. 1 state for educational freedom,’’ he said. “Other states are going to be following us.’’

Lewis, however, rejected any argument that people who already send their children to private schools without a voucher effectively are being asked to pay not only for the service they are buying but the service they are not getting from the public schools. She said that’s the way democracy works.

“We all pay into the system,’’ Lewis said.

“Like because I don’t use the fire system this year, I’m lucky enough to not use firefighters, I should give that money back?’’ she continued. “That’s nonsense.’’

There is something else that could give voucher foes some ammunition.

An early version of the legislation would have required that students in private and parochial schools using these vouchers of state funds to take some standardized tests, similar to those already administered in public schools. The results, as in the case of public schools, would have been reported on an aggregate basis.

That requirement was removed from the final version by Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, who said what’s happening at private schools is none of the government’s business.

But voucher foes like Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, said the fact that tax dollars will be flowing to those schools is precisely what gives the state an interest.

“We will not know if students are using our tax dollars – $7,000 is the typical award – if they’re using that money to learn anything,’’ she said during legislative debate.

Ducey waited until the last possible day for him to act on legislation, cutting 10 days from the time that referendum backers have to get their signatures, as the deadline falls 90 days after the end of the session, regardless of when the governor acts.

Lewis, however, said she’s not concerned.

“We’re teachers,’’ she said. “We know how to plan behind the scenes and get ready.’’