Group seeking school voucher bill repeal to file petitions

Posted at 2:35 PM, Aug 07, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-07 17:35:14-04

A group opposed to a major private school voucher expansion bill signed by Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday it has collected enough signatures to block the law if the validation rate holds.

Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker said the group has collected more than 100,000 voter signatures and plans to turn them in to the secretary of state's office on Tuesday. That's about 25 percent more than required and should be enough to prevent the law from taking effect on Wednesday.

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"We don't have a precise number, but we do know that we have over 100,000," Penich-Thacker said. "So that's what today is all about, is getting to that precise number that we can tell the Secretary of State tomorrow when we deliver."

The expansion law will be immediately blocked if the group turns in more than the 75,321 required signatures under Arizona's voter referendum law, said Matt Roberts, spokesman for Secretary of State Michele Reagan. Tuesday's expected filing will kick off a process lasting more than a month where the secretary of state and county recorders verify the signatures.

If enough signatures are validated, the law will be on hold until the November 2018 general election under Arizona referendum law allowing citizens to challenge legislative action.

Penich-Thacker said the group anticipates legal challenges from voucher backers, something that has become common from opponents of voter initiatives in recent years.

Blocking the law allowing public money to be used for private and religious schools would be a blow to school voucher advocates, and for Ducey, who worked to get the law enacted.

Kim Martinez, Arizona spokeswoman for the school choice group American Federation for Children, said she doubts Save Our Schools has enough valid signatures.

"It appears to us that they fell short," Martinez said. "From the beginning they themselves in their own words predicted they would need about 120,000 signatures."

Martinez declined to specifically say if her group would go to court to challenge signatures, but did say they plan to scrutinize "every single signature on every petition."

"Of course we're going to make sure all the signatures are valid and we are going to continue to fight for a program that empowers students and parent who need it," Martinez said.

Since Arizona first passed a voucher program for disabled students in 2011, it has been repeatedly expanded and now covers about a third of all students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Indian reservations, foster children and children of military members. Despite those changes, only but only about 3,500 students now use it to pay for private school tuition, and more than half are disabled.

Voucher opponents say that's because low-income parents can't afford to send their children to private schools despite the state cash, prefer neighborhood public schools or can't afford to drive their children to private schools.

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 currently receives about $6,000 a year to pay for tuition or other costs, while disabled students get about $20,000.

The new expansion would go into effect for the fall semester if opponents fall short during the signature validation process. It expands eligibility to all students by 2022 but caps enrollment at about 30,000.

Supporters say vouchers give parents more choice. Opponents argue they siphon money from public schools.