Arizona GOP leaders push Hobbs to reject referendum blocking school voucher expansion

Sep 28, 2022, 3:00 PM | Updated: 3:17 pm

From left, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (AP Photos)...

From left, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (AP Photos)

(AP Photos)

PHOENIX – Arizona Republican leaders are pushing Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to quickly reject the ballot initiative effort that’s keeping their signature school voucher expansion law from going into effect.

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann and Gov. Doug Ducey accused Hobbs, who is running for governor, of playing politics by unnecessarily stretching out the signature validation process.

“We recognize statute allows you up to 20 business days to verify signatures, but we are asking you to expedite this process,” Fann wrote Wednesday in a letter to Hobbs. “Because your office is already in possession of compelling evidence of the insufficiency of the referendum petition, anything less than an immediate rejection of the petition will make your office complicit in the referendum proponents’ misreporting and interference with the duly enacted laws of this state.”

Ducey held press conference Wednesday to discuss the voucher expansion, which will allow the families of any student to receive state funds for private school or homeschooling.

“Now is not a time for politics,” he said. “It’s a time to put these parents first.”

A spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office responded by saying the review would be completed within the required timeframe.

“Regardless of the reports that the number of referendum signatures will fall short, our office must complete the review according to the law. … If, after … [the] initial review, the petition does not have enough signatures, we will publish the results and the petition will not continue on to the next stage of the review process,” Sophia Solis, deputy communications director for the Secretary of State, said in a statement.

The Arizona Department of Education said Wednesday that parents who sign up for the vouchers, known as Empowerment Savings Accounts (ESAs), by Friday will be eligible for first quarter funding even if the petition process hasn’t been completed.

When Save Our Schools Arizona submitted its petitions to meet a deadline Friday, the group said it collected 141,714 signatures, a decent cushion above the 118,823-signature threshold required to put the voucher expansion on hold until the issue could go before voters in 2024.

But the Secretary of State’s Office said Monday only 8,175 petition sheets were received. With each sheet having 15 lines, nearly all would have to be filled with valid signatures to reach the required threshold, a highly improbable scenario.

On Monday, the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that pushed the voucher expansion, said its lawyers did their own hand count and found that only 88,866 signatures were submitted.

Save Our Schools Arizona then said the number they reported was an estimate because a precise count couldn’t be done while so many petitions were coming in down the stretch.

As of last week, 10,338 applications had been filed for ESAs under the universal expansion law, 76% of which were for students with no previous record of public or charter school enrollment, according to the Department of Education.

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

The new law 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 or cover homeschool costs.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Arizona GOP leaders push Hobbs to reject referendum blocking school voucher expansion