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Citizens’ referendum receives enough signatures to put school choice expansion on hold

Program would allow families to use public education funding for private education costs
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Posted at 3:07 PM, Sep 23, 2022

PHOENIX — The law to expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program was set to go into effect on Saturday, but a citizens’ referendum received enough signatures to put it on hold.

Save Our Schools, the group behind the citizens’ referendum, gathered more than 141,700 signatures and delivered them to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office at 3 p.m. Friday. The group needed more than 118,000 signatures to pause the law.

Governor Doug Ducey signed HB 2853 into law in July, letting families use nearly $7,000 a year to pay for students to go to any school they want, including private schools, or get homeschooling. The money would come from the public education fund.

A similar law to expand the ESA program failed to pass in 2018.

People who oppose the law, like those who are a part of Save Our Schools, say the initiative will hurt public schools and take money away from them. Those who want the expansion say it gives more families choices.

Dad Kevin Gemeroy wants choices for his kids. He is for the expansion of the ESA program

Gemeroy pulled his kids out of public school because it wasn’t a fit. His son did not qualify under the current ESA program because they didn’t spend enough days in public school and did not meet the requirements for a 504 or IEP. They ended up not applying, so instead, Gemeroy put his son in private school.

“We were able to afford the private school tuition, which is amazing, but not every family can. ESA’s will give families that can’t have access to private school tuition on their own the ability to choose the school that’s best for the kids,” he said.

Gemeroy's family applied for an ESA under the universal expansion.

However, Beth Lewis, the director of Save our Schools, says that money would be taken away from public education and go into private schools where there isn’t as much oversight from the state government.

“It’s important to keep these dollars in our local schools so that every child has a quality school in their neighborhood,” she said.

Families can still apply for the ESA expansion, they just won’t be able to get that money that should have started Saturday, according to the governor’s office.

While the organization received enough signatures, they know it’s not the end of their work.

“We’re excited today, we’re standing proud. We’re really happy to have gotten the signatures but we know this is the beginning of the battle,” said Raquel Mamani, who is parent and also part of Save Our Schools.

Those like Christine Accurso, who want the expansion, will be waiting to see what happens.

“COVID parents really woke up, and parents are wide awake in Arizona now. If it goes to the ballot, SOS (Save Our Schools) will have challenge from the parents,” she said.

Now that the organization dropped off ballots, it has to go through a verification process, which the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office said could take more than a month.

If all is verified, voters could see a ballot measure regarding the expansion in 2024.