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Foes of Arizona school voucher expansion file to block it

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Phoenix (AFP) – Public school advocates who oppose the massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher system, which was enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Governor Doug Ducey in July, provided enough signatures Friday to prevent it from implementation.

The law, which extends the program to every child in the state, will be suspended rather than take effect on Saturday. If a review finds that Save Our Schools Arizona has met the requirements for nearly 119,000 valid signatures—and if those signatures survive any appeals by voucher proponents—it will remain blocked until the November 2024 election.

Beth Lewis, executive director of the grassroots group that formed when a similar expansion went through in 2017 and was successfully challenged at the polls, said Friday that the group delivered 141,714 signatures. That’s less than they had hoped, because groups trying to pass laws to voters or get initiatives on the ballot usually aim to deliver at least 25% of the surplus.

Voters rejected the previous expansion by a 2/3 majority in the 2018 elections.

Lewis put part of the blame on Ducey, who stuck to the bill for 10 days after the legislature adjourned, a move that cut the time opponents had to collect signatures from 90 to 80 days.

“We certainly wish we had spent those 10 days that Ducey stole from the electorate to build our pillow,” Lewis said. “But we have enough to feel confident that with our signatures valid we can hand them over, complete the processing and get them on the ballot.”

Voucher opponents say the program pulls money from state public schools, which have been underfunded for decades and educate the vast majority of the state’s students, even though Ducey and the legislature have pumped money into the system over the past several years. Supporters of the voucher program say it allows parents to choose the best school for their children. Ducey is a major supporter of School Choice and promoted the expansion at a bill signing ceremony in August.

Supporters of expanding the state’s voucher program, known technically as empowerment grant accounts, organized to try to persuade voters not to sign petitions. They showed up at signing events with “refusal to sign” signs and called the companies to tell them that the petition promoters were in their parking lots.

Among those supporting expansion are national “choice school” groups such as the American Federation of Children, founded and formerly led by Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s secretary of education.

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Scott Smith, a former Republican senator from the state who is now the AFC state director, said he expects “every effort” to defeat the voter referendum, both in the courts and at the polls.

“Rest assured, whatever happens, I’m sure it’s safe to say that I and others and that parents will do everything we can to protect their rights to teach their children how to see better,” Smith said.

Under the state constitution, voters can block most laws passed by the legislature by collecting signatures. To allow this, most new laws take effect 90 days after the legislature adjourns, the referral deadline.

Although about a third of Arizona students are eligible for the current voucher program—particularly those who live in low-income areas—about 12,000 students statewide are currently using the system.

The expansion that Ducey signed would allow every parent in Arizona to take public money now sent into the K-12 public school system and use it to pay their children’s tuition in private schools, homeschooling materials or other education costs.

Arizona already has the most comprehensive education options in the state and will have the most comprehensive voucher system if the law goes into effect.

An estimated 60,000 private school students and approximately 38,000 homeschooled students are currently eligible for up to $7,000 annually, although a small number of them actually receive vouchers. All of the 1.1 million students who attend the district’s traditional schools and charter schools are also eligible to leave their public schools and receive funds to attend private schools.

Since the state Department of Education opened a new portal for parents to apply under the Global Eligibility Act, more than 10,000 applications have been received.

Many parents of private school students currently receive tuition through one of several tax credit programs. This pays less, however, so many are more likely to switch to the coupon.

Lewis and other opponents of the program say they worry about losing up to $1 billion in funding for the public school system. K-12 schools currently receive about $8 billion annually in government funding.

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