Universal school voucher foes turn in signatures to force a public vote in 2024

The expansion to all 1.1 million students is on hold while elections officials validate signatures

By: - September 24, 2022 7:47 am

Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, speaks during a news conference on the Capitol grounds on Sept. 23, 2022, after her group collected 141,714 signatures from voters who want to see the expansion of the state’s school voucher program put to a voter referendum. Photo by Caitlin Sievers | Arizona Mirror

Teachers and public school advocates on Friday submitted nearly 142,000 petition signatures to block the new universal school voucher program that was set to go into effect on Friday and let voters decide its fate in 2024.

Save Our Schools Arizona PAC said it gathered 141,714 signatures to give voters the chance to weigh in on the expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, the formal name of the voucher system. 


Whether voters will get that chance remains to be seen. The signatures represent almost 23,000 more than needed to refer the matter to the ballot, but state and county elections officials will inevitably whittle that number down when they verify the petitions comply with legal requirements and that the signers are registered voters.

And then there will be a legal challenge from school-choice backers. Arizona law allows opponents of citizen initiatives or referendums, like this one, to challenge the signatures in court. In the past decade, GOP lawmakers — with backing from big corporate interests upset that voters have approved minimum wage hikes and tax increases — have made it easier for challengers to disqualify large swaths of petition signatures. 

If, after all that, the referendum has at least 118,823 valid signatures, the ESA expansion will be blocked and voters will have their say in November 2024. If the effort has too few signatures, the expansion will immediately go into effect.

Until all that happens, the law will remain blocked.

School voucher history

The ESA program was created in 2011, and had previously been available to a limited number of students in specific situations. But in July, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that would allow every one of the more than 1.1. million K-12 students in Arizona to receive about $7,000 to pay for private school, homeschooling or other educational options — and it can be socked away to pay for college in the future. 

Before now, the ESA program had only been available to students who attend failing public schools, those with parents in the military, kids in foster care and students living on Native American reservations. Before the expansion, around 11,800 students were enrolled.  

Legislative budget analysts have estimated that 25,000 students would likely take advantage of the expanded program, though they concede it’s virtually impossible to accurately assess the potential demand. 

In the first two weeks that the expanded program accepted applications, around 75% of students who applied had never attended an Arizona public school. 

That’s a departure from how the program was initially designed, as it was meant to provide options to students attending struggling public schools and to special education students who couldn’t get the services they needed at their public schools. 

“If you want to do private school, you pay for it,” said Save Our Schools volunteer Patrick Brown. “You don’t pay for it with our money.” 

Will there be a repeat of 2018?

Save Our Schools Arizona successfully blocked a previous ESA expansion that was passed in 2017 that also would have provided vouchers to most Arizona students. After gathering enough signatures to put it on the 2018 ballot, 64% of voters rejected the expansion. 

But this year has been different, with outside groups throwing money at the ESA campaign, and an organized group of parents promoting the expansion of government-funded school choice. 

But Save Our Schools still counted the day a win as members gathered Friday afternoon near a stack of boxes full of signature sheets on the Capitol grounds in Phoenix, before the boxes were delivered to the Secretary of State’s Office. 

“These voters have repudiated the schemes of Governor Ducey and the Republican-led legislature that continually work to defund our public schools in service to special interests,” Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, said during a news conference. 

Ducey and others who supported the voucher expansion claimed that it made Arizona “the gold standard” for education choice. 

“Our kids will no longer be stuck in under-performing schools,” Ducey said in a press statement touting the ESA expansion. “We’re unlocking their educational potential and advancing a bold new era of learning opportunities.”

School choice advocates denounced the referendum effort. 

“Anti-school choice activists have taken the first step in stripping Arizona parents of the many educational options available to them,” Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy Action, said in a written statement Friday. “Earlier this year, Arizona lawmakers fought to extend opportunities to all Arizona families but, just a day before the new law was to take effect, leftist activists pulled the rug out from under parents and students.

“I am confident Arizona voters will see through the false claims of the activists and repudiate their efforts to make decisions for parents and children who do not necessarily thrive in the one and only educational setting activists choose for them.”

But volunteers for Save Our Schools who gathered at the Capitol Friday said that strong public schools help build a strong economy, strong communities and a better society. 

Save Our Schools Outreach Coordinator Nicky Indicavitch was proud that the group gathered signatures from all 15 Arizona counties who recognized that the expansion will create winners and losers instead of equitable public education. 

“This is what democracy looks like,” said Save Our Schools board member Raquel Mamani. “We will not stop fighting for our public schools in communities because we know that quality public schools for everyone help our economy, help our neighborhoods and help our students.” 

What happens next? 

The Secretary of State’s Office will begin processing the petitions, beginning with a check to ensure all petitions have the text and title of the bill attached, according to Secretary of State, Katie Hobbs. Then the petitions will be scanned. 

Next, every petition will be reviewed to ensure it meets various statutory requirements. 

If the petition still has the minimum number of required signatures, a random 5% sample of signatures will be sent to each county recorder’s office, and each county recorder will check those signatures against the voter registration rolls to confirm that the voter is eligible to sign. The number of valid sampled signatures will be used to extrapolate how many total signatures from each county are valid. 

Because all of the verifications take time, the state might not know if the petitions have definitively reached the threshold until after the General Election in November, Hobbs said in a tweet.


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Caitlin Sievers
Caitlin Sievers

Caitlin joined the Arizona Mirror in 2022 with almost 10 years of experience as a reporter and editor, holding local government leaders accountable from newsrooms across the West and Midwest. She's won statewide awards in Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin for reporting, photography and commentary.