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Organization pushes for voters to repeal Arizona school voucher bill

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

PHOENIX — A group that opposes a major private school voucher expansion bill signed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced Monday that it will push to ask voters to repeal the legislation.

The group, called Save Our Schools, plans to announce details of the effort to collect enough signatures to force the vote at a Capitol news conference Monday.

The group must collect more than 75,000 valid signatures to put the law extending school voucher eligibility to all schoolchildren on hold until the November 2018 general election.

The bill signed by the Republican governor last month caps total voucher enrollment at about 30,000 students in 2022.

Sharon Kirsch of Save Our Schools said the group is concerned about the voucher program siphoning funding from public schools.

“What we hope to accomplish is to demand that our lawmakers prioritize public education,” she said.

The group plans to use volunteers to circulate petitions and collect twice as many signatures than necessary to block the law and refer it to the ballot. They’ll have just 90 days from the end of the legislative session, expected this week, to do so.

“We know that it’s going to be an uphill battle,” Kirsch said.

The school voucher bill was one of the most contentious of the legislative session and extends eligibility for the state’s voucher program to all 1.2 million Arizona schoolchildren over four years, taking what is a relatively small program and expanding it greatly.

Ducey hailed the passage as a victory for parents, who will now have more choices.

Opponents in the Legislature, mainly Democrats, argued that it will benefit the wealthy, who they say will use state money to pay for private education they would fund anyway.

Technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the Arizona program allows parents to take between 90 percent and 100 percent of the state money a local public school would receive to pay for private or religious education.

The average student who isn’t disabled will get about $4,400 a year, but some will get much more.

The program will give Arizona one of broadest voucher programs in the nation. Nevada has a similar plan applying to all students, but its funding mechanism was recently struck down by the state Supreme Court.

The law comes at a time of considerable national momentum behind school choice, punctuated by the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as President Donald Trump’s Education Secretary.

The billionaire is a vocal supporter of school choice and voucher programs, putting the nation’s top education official firmly behind the Arizona proposal.

When Ducey signed the bill, DeVos tweeted that the voucher expansion was a “big win for students and parents in Arizona.”

Kirsch said her group “absolutely” backs school choice.

“But the majority of children in Arizona choose their neighborhood school and we want those neighborhood schools to be strong,” she said.

Republican State Sen. Debbie Lesko, who sponsored SB 1431, said she’s disappointed that members of Save Our Schools Arizona are trying to prevent her bill from going into effect.

“I’m really disappointed that the opponents don’t want parents to have a choice in what school their child goes to,” Lesko said, adding that the program allows parents “to choose the best education for their child.”

Republican Senate President Steve Yarbrough on Monday lamented the effort to refer the bill he backed to the voters.

He said the Legislature is “enormously committed to K-12 public education,” and pointed to a state budget that devotes more than 40 percent of its general fund spending to those schools.

“I just think it’s unfortunate that something so modest as a maximum potential of up to 30,000 kids out of 1.2 million would generate that sort of resistance,” Yarbrough said. “But it’s a free country, they can do what they want to do and we’ll see.”

KTAR’s Griselda Nevarez contributed to this report. 

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