Arizona school voucher opponents fall short in bid to block expansion

Sep 30, 2022, 8:01 AM | Updated: 1:03 pm

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks during a press conference promoting school voucher expansion on Sept...

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks during a press conference promoting school voucher expansion on Sept. 28, 2022, in Phoenix. (Twitter Photo/@DougDucey)

(Twitter Photo/@DougDucey)

PHOENIX – Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said Friday that the effort to block school voucher expansion by voter referendum has fallen short.

“While the statutorily required review continues, our office has inspected enough petitions and signatures to confirm that the 118,823 signature minimum will not be met,” Hobbs said in a tweet.

The Arizona Department of Education said earlier this week that parents who sign up for the vouchers, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), by Friday would be eligible for first-quarter funding even if the referendum process wasn’t completed. Application information is available on the department’s website.

Hobbs’s office sent Save our Schools Arizona a letter on Thursday notifying the group of the signature shortfall.

The group issued a statement calling it a “devastating blow” to the state’s public school system.

“Arizona’s public schools are on the verge of losing over $76 million [with] virtually no oversight as these ESA voucher funds are siphoned to private schools and homeschooling with little to no academic or financial accountability,” the statement said.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has touted the expansion as one of the biggest achievements of his tenure, which is in its final months after two terms.

State GOP leaders had been accusing Hobbs, a Democrat running to succeed Ducey, of playing politics by stretching out the validation process, even though by statute the Secretary of State’s Office had 20 days to evaluate the signatures.

When Save Our Schools Arizona submitted its petitions to meet a deadline last Friday, the group said it collected 141,714 signatures on more than 10,000 petitions, a decent cushion above the threshold required to put the voucher expansion on hold until the issue could go before voters in 2024.

Save Our Schools Arizona later 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.

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.

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.

Friday’s announcement by Hobbs didn’t include an exact number, but it confirmed that there weren’t enough signatures to block the law.

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 state 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 were using 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 under the new law.

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 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 school voucher opponents fall short in bid to block expansion