Parents Gather 111,540 Signatures, Put Arizona Education Savings Account Vouchers On Hold for Now

Parents in Arizona collected and, this week, delivered petitions with 111,540 signatures to Arizona’s secretary of state to stop the expansion of a new law that would have made 1.1 million public school students in Arizona eligible for Education Savings Account vouchers.

To demand that a referendum on the new Education Savings Account expansion be placed on the November 2018 ballot, opponents of the Education Savings Accounts were required to present 75,321 valid signatures. Save Our Schools Arizona’s collection of over 100,000 signatures puts the implementation of the law on-hold until the signatures can be verified.

The law to launch Education Savings Accounts was an expansion of school choice provisions already in place in Arizona.  SB 1431, enacted and signed in April, would make 1.1 million students eligible to apply, although it capped the number of children who could receive grants under the program to 30,000 by 2022.

Here is the Arizona Republic describing what happened last Tuesday: “A law expanding Arizona’s school-voucher program was put on hold Tuesday after foes delivered 111,540 signatures to the secretary of state in hopes of giving voters the final say on whether the controversial measure should stand. Save Our Schools Arizona, a volunteer group that formed in opposition to Republicans’ expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, said it gathered the signatures from public education supporters across the state who oppose using tax dollars for private school tuition and are critical of the program’s lack of transparency. Supporters transported the petitions to the Capitol in 76 bankers boxes using a yellow school bus and a red wagon.”

Arizona already had a similar program, although it was limited to students with special needs, students in schools with low test scores, and military families.  Education Savings Accounts work like a debit card. Parents give up their child’s right to public education and can then use the dollars in the account to pay for private school tuition, the cost of home schooling, tutoring, online education, or therapy for a disabled child.

In April of this year when Governor Doug Ducey signed SB 1431, the Education Savings Account expansion, into law, Derek Black commented on the Education Law Prof Blog: “Arizona just passed a bill that will make every student in the state eligible for a voucher.  It may become the biggest voucher program in the nation.  The ‘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 get much more.’  The funding mechanism and its expected cost to the state is murky… What is clear, however, is that Arizona’s per public funding for public schools currently ranks 47 out of 50 states. To make matters worse, it distributes those meager funds unequally…  Arizona spends the least on students who need it the most… Arizona ranks 49th in the nation in terms of the level of fiscal effort it exerts to fund its schools… These cold hard facts show that the state is not really interested in supporting adequate and equal education for its students.  Thus, it is no surprise the state would double down and make matters worse.”

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week on the effort by Save Our Schools Arizona to collect signatures: “The effort by the public school advocacy group included rallies and knocking on doors to gather signatures. The group believes the program could wreak havoc on public school budgets if it were allowed to expand from its current enrollment of 3,500 to about 30,000 students.”

Arizona Republic reporters spoke with the chair of Save Our Schools Arizona: “Beth Lewis, chair of Save Our Schools and a fifth-grade teacher, said the volunteer group had defied expectations by halting the law from taking effect. ‘Ninety days ago, few people thought this day would come… We, the people of Arizona have done the work to put this on the ballot.  We know Arizona will vote no.'”

Save Our Schools Arizona has also begun collecting money for the political campaign that will be necessary to pass the referendum in November of 2018, with the average donation reported at $38 and most money collected within Arizona. The public school support group expects, however, that the collection of over 100,000 signatures is merely the beginning of a difficult battle.

Dark money groups—many from outside the state—are already organizing to defeat the referendum and preserve the expansion of Education Savings Accounts. Many who support the Education Savings Account program came to the Capitol to protest Save Our Schools Arizona’s presentation of the signed petitions demanding the 2018 referendum. The Arizona Republic reports: “The law was put on hold the same day Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a political education arm of the Koch brothers network, launched an effort ‘to tout Arizona’s untold educational successes.’  In a news release, the group said it is ‘spending six figures to tell Arizonans how charter schools, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, and other policies are enabling more Arizona children to obtain a quality education.’  Sydney Hay of American Federation for Children, a pro-school-choice, dark money group that lobbied for SB 1431, was also present along with dozens of people whom she said supported the measure.”

The American Federation for Children, of course, is the pro-school-privatization organization founded by our current U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, who chaired its board for years.