Opponents fail to block Arizona school voucher expansion

Education

(NewsNation) — A conservative think tank says a massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher system will likely go into effect, after public school advocates failed to gather enough signatures to block the law.

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative and libertarian public policy think tank in Phoenix, said Save Our Schools Arizona “submitted just 88,866 signatures, according to petition sheets made available by the Secretary of State’s office.” That’s “significantly short of the requisite 118,843 signatures needed to overturn the reform via ballot referendum.”

Although Save Our Schools Arizona said it “will await accurate numbers” from the Secretary of State’s office regarding its challenge to the law, the head of the grassroots group acknowledged it is probably well below the threshold.

Monday’s developments appear to be a major victory for “school choice” advocates in Arizona and across the nation who argue that parents should be able to use public tax dollars to send their children to schools that best serve their needs. Voucher opponents say they drain money from long-underfunded public schools that serve the vast majority of children, sending public money to unaccountable private and religious schools and mainly benefiting the wealthy.

The Secretary of State’s Office has not formally completed its review. Even if the group came in above the needed number, supporters of the voucher program had vowed legal action to challenge the signatures.

Save Our Schools Arizona formed when teachers, parents and other public school advocates came together after the legislature passed a similar expansion in 2017. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the change in 2018.

The new law would have taken effect last Saturday, but was temporarily halted as Save Our Schools filed its signatures. If enough signatures had been gathered, the law would have stayed blocked until the next general election in 2024.

“For them to now finally have a gateway and equality in education, that you mean ‘I could go to that school that I could never think I could afford and pay for… I can actually go there now? I could get out of this school that has been miring our community for years and decades, I can actually go somewhere else and actually achieve something I never thought I could do?’ These are the families by the scores that want this bill, that want these scholarships and will be using these scholarships,” said Steve Smith of the American Federation for Children.

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 currently use 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 if the law takes effect.

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 would also qualify to leave their public schools and receive money to attend private schools.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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