• What comes next for Arizona's school voucher program?

    What comes next for Arizona’s school voucher program?

  • The Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona

    The Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona

  • People opposed to expansion of Arizon school voucher program protest

    People opposed to expansion of Arizon school voucher program protest

  • Allhands: Vouchers won't kill public education

    Allhands: Vouchers won’t kill public education

Public-education advocates are launching a referendum campaign to halt the controversial expansion of Arizona’s school-voucher-style program.

Members of the group Save Our Schools Arizona said they will file paperwork this week and begin gathering signatures to refer their proposal to the November 2018 ballot.

The group formally announced their plans at a news conference and rally at the Arizona State Capitol Monday afternoon, joined by students, parents and members of faith-based groups. They held signs that read, “No to ESAs,” “Save Public Education NO ESAs,” and “Dirty defunding Ducey Education’s Enemy.”

The expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, signed into law last month by Gov. Doug Ducey, opens ESAs to all public- and charter-school students. Up to 30,000 parents could use the new program by 2022. It’s scheduled to take effect 90 days after the state Legislature adjourns.

ESAs had been limited to certain children, including those with disabilities and those from poor-performing schools.

READ MORE: What does ESA expansion mean for parents?

Save Our Schools Arizona was formed by women upset by the expansion of the ESA program, which they say could dismantle public education. They also say it disproportionately benefits wealthy families who might otherwise afford private-school tuition without taxpayer aid.

The referendum aims to let the public decide to either uphold or overturn the school-voucher expansion. The committee will have 90 days to collect about 75,000 valid signatures from registered voters to qualify for the ballot.

If the referendum qualifies for the ballot, the ESA expansion would be enjoined from taking effect until the vote. Senate Bill 1431 would be undone if a majority of voters cast “no” votes.

Beth Lewis, a teacher and founding member of Save our Schools Arizona, said at the rally that expansion of the ESA program will come at the expense of public schools — a situation she blamed on the Republican-controlled Legislature and Ducey.

“Our public schools are starving. It’s no mystery who is responsible,” Lewis said. She later added that ESAs are “predicated on a lie, just like Gov. Ducey’s Prop. 123,” a reference to the ballot measure he successfully pushed to restore 70 percent of the funding the state owed schools during the recession.

“As a teacher and a mom of two students who are about to go to public school, I am so concerned about the state of education in Arizona,” Lewis said. “The ESA issue is the straw that broke the camel’s back. And we don’t have any choice but to start fighting for what’s right.”

ESAs are funded by diverting between 90 percent and 100 percent of a student’s state school funding from their local school district to private schools or other education expenses. The money is placed in an account, which parents can use to pay for private-school tuition, uniforms, books, tutoring, educational therapies and other items.

A Republic analysis found that counter to the program’s characterization as a benefit to lower-income students in poor-performing schools, students used the program to abandon higher-performing districts in more-affluent areas.

On the ballot with Ducey?


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The referendum could appear on the same 2018 ballot as Ducey, the Republican incumbent who helped secure passage of the ESA expansion.

Public-education advocates argue the governor’s support for ESAs was a betrayal after they joined him in campaigning for Proposition 123, which voters passed in May 2016 to remedy the Legislature’s under-funding of schools during the recession.

Democratic gubernatorial challenger David Garcia, a professor and education policy expert who was once an associate superintendent of public instruction, has said the ESA expansion bill prompted him to enter the race.

Ducey, however, is a skilled fundraiser who has benefited from millions of dollars in “dark money” spending by outside groups that are not required to disclose their donors.

When asked about funding, Save Our Schools Arizona organizers said the group is talking with potential campaign donors but has not officially secured high-dollar donations.

Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said if the measure makes the ballot, it could create “a pretty clear referendum on the issue” as well as Ducey: Voters would have the opportunity to vote either for or against “the guy that made that happen.”

In an interview with The Republic on Monday, Ducey characterized the expansion as a “small reform” that will be gradually implemented. He suggested voters who oppose it would be more accepting as they learn more about it. 

“I think once people understand the scope of it, the temperature comes down,” he said of fervor surrounding the measure. “Let’s see how it works. It’s just an expansion of parental choice and school choice.”

Sen. Debbie Lesko, a Peoria Republican who sponsored the measure, said Save Our Schools Arizona is “totally opposed to school choice.” Lesko said she takes the referendum effort seriously, “especially something this high profile, where there’s national debate over it.”

Many potential opponents

Political and education experts warned that the anti-voucher group faces an uphill battle, even if its proposal gets enough signatures to make the ballot.

“If you manage to overcome the hurdle for the signatures, then you’re just looking at a lot of spending from outside interest groups in support of ESAs,” Kotterman said. “Because Arizona has become ground zero for this stuff and has been for the last 10-15 years.”

He noted that the Goldwater Institute is a force nationally in pushing ESAs, vouchers and tax credits to further its school-choice agenda. “I just don’t see how they would sit back and take a loss in their own backyard,” he said.

Groups with similar agendas, including the American Federation for Children and potentially Jeb Bush’s foundation, could also spend to stop the referendum. American Federation for Children, which was created by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, spent  $200,000 on legislative races last year, he said.

Republican consultant Chuck Coughlin estimated Save Our Schools Arizona may have to spend at least $3.5 million to gather signatures, prepare for potential legal fights, and fund a campaign. 

Bonding at hearings

Most of the eight original members of Save Our Schools Arizona didn’t know each other before January.

What brought them together: spending hours at the Capitol waiting to speak about bills and feeling their concerns weren’t being heard, as well as lawmakers’ treatment of ESA opponents. In one committee meeting, for example, parents said a Republican senator rolled his eyes at an ESA opponent.

When you sit with “someone for eight hours, waiting to speak for 45 seconds, you get to know each other,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona. “We just kept seeing one another time after time and commiserating over being shut down and ignored and insulted.”

Lewis said she was ignored during committee hearings and by legislators.

“I went after teaching a whole day and I was the second to last person to speak,” she said. “It was like a sweat lodge.”

“This (referendum) process was really inspired by seeing voters lose their voice,” Lewis said. “And it was inspired by the idea that we should give that voice back to voters.”

Alison Porter, a Democratic organizer from Tempe, said the idea for the referendum came to her the day after the Legislature passed the ESA bills in a marathon session.

“I was exhausted and I woke up and said, ‘We have to change this. We cannot let this stand,’ ” she said.

Porter called the woman she met at the hearings and the group began meeting. They brought on a campaign lawyer, a fundraiser and someone to help with field operations, and they have expanded their group to about a dozen people around the state.

A challenging process

Members of the group said they are aware of the tough task of getting a referendum on the ballot and passed.

“We do understand it’s a very daunting project we have taken on, and I don’t think we are under any illusions,” said Cathy Sigmon, who in is charge of fundraising for Save our Schools Arizona.

Although the effort was conceived by Democrats, members of the group say they want it to be “purple” — a mix of Democrats, independents, Republicans and anyone else interested undoing the ESA expansion and advocating for public-education funding.

The group has not fleshed out its plan to collect signatures.

Just kicking off the referendum effort is a step in the right direction, Penich-Thacker said. “We’re going to keep people thinking and talking and mobilizing around education for the next 90 days.”

About 200 people gathered at the state Capitol on Monday to announce their plans, joined by two Democratic candidates for schools superintendent, a business executive and others who accused Republican elected officials of choosing private schools over public schools.

Bill Timmons, president and CEO of Hacienda Healthcare, said state leaders are “short-changing” future generations of students. 

“I’ve often said there are three individuals that determine a children’s future: the parents, the pediatricians that keep them healthy, and the teachers that educate them.”

Luis Heredia, who has worked on various Democratic Party campaigns, expressed skepticism over the effort. Heredia said grass-roots efforts can be somewhat successful, but they have limited reach in the state.

“There’s a lot of challenges without an institution or organizations backing a campaign like this, it gets really hard,” he said. “You have to have the infrastructure in place throughout Maricopa County and throughout other parts of the state. It takes a lot of heavy lifting. It’s not an easy task.”

Kotterman also questioned whether a referendum is the right move because that only repeals the law passed by the Legislature and doesn’t prevent the Legislature from passing another ESA expansion.

“Politically I think it’s tempting to want to do it. But I don’t know if solves the problem in the long term,” he said.

Porter of Save Our Schools Arizona shrugged off doubts about funding and opposition, contending the referendum is needed now because “we need to change the direction in Arizona.”

“I personally believe people power can be stronger than money power,” Porter said. “And we’ve got the people behind us.”

Follow the reporters on Twitter @yvonnewingett and @robodellaz and reach them at [email protected] and [email protected].


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