A teachers’ union-backed campaign to overturn Arizona’s universal voucher law has failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, allowing the state to move forward with what has been described as the most expansive school-choice program in the nation.
The Arizona Secretary of State’s office announced Thursday that the Save Our Schools Arizona PAC fell short of the 118,823 valid signatures required to qualify the referendum for the 2024 ballot to stop the statewide expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts [ESA].
The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, which championed the accounts, said Friday the outcome represented “a vindication of parents who are clamoring for choice in education.”
“This is a monumental victory for students not only in Arizona, but also across the nation,” said Goldwater director of education policy Matt Beienburg. “Lawmakers in every other state now know it’s possible to defeat the radical teachers unions and make students the priority of our education system once again.”
The Secretary of State’s office said it based its announcement on a review of the number of sheets and signatures, and would announce the final signature tally in the next few days.
Save Our Schools Arizona called the failed attempt a “devastating blow” to public education.
“The universal ESA voucher scheme passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Governor [Doug] Ducey has gone into effect despite our network’s herculean effort to stop it in its tracks,” said the organization in a Friday post.
We have informed the SOS committee that the referendum will not qualify for the 2024 General Election Ballot. While the statutorily required review continues, our office has inspected enough petitions & signatures to confirm that the 118,823 signature minimum will not be met. pic.twitter.com/UVydtBH5oi
— Secretary Katie Hobbs (@SecretaryHobbs) September 30, 2022
In July, Mr. Ducey signed legislation expanding the voucher program to all 1.1 million state students, giving parents the opportunity to access nearly $7,000 per child per year for “private school, home-based education, ‘learning pods,’ tutoring, or any other kinds of educational service that would best fit their students’ unique needs,” said the institute.
Launched in 2011, the program went from serving 100 students to 11,000 earlier this year.
Save Our Schools said the expansion places the state’s education system at risk by redirecting per-pupil funding outside the public schools.
“Arizona’s public schools are on the verge of losing over $76 million virtually overnight as these ESA funds are siphoned to private schools and homeschooling with little to no academic or financial accountability,” said the group.
To qualify for the program, parents or guardians must withdraw their students from public schools and sign contracts agreeing to use the funding to educate their children in reading, math, social studies and science.
“Entrenched government interests who felt threatened by parental empowerment tried to maintain the status quo by fighting school choice with falsehoods and half-truths,” said the Goldwater Institute. “But parents rallied to urge their fellow citizens to decline to sign the anti-parental rights group’s petition, and the massive signature shortfall shows that parents’ desire for choice in education can prevail over the union spin machine.”
Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools, acknowledged earlier this week that the petitions were likely to fall short of the threshold, but the group vowed Friday to keep fighting the school-choice agenda.
“Our network will never stop fighting to fully fund our community schools and halt the privatization of our public education system,” said the group. “For now, we are dedicating every ounce of energy to electing pro-public education candidates up and down the ballot this November to stop these relentless attacks on our public schools and communities.”
The group’s backers include Invest in Arizona, which is funded by the Arizona Education Association and National Education Association, according to campaign-finance records on TransparencyUSA.