Save Our Schools Arizona referendum to overturn the ‘vouchers for all’ bill

For activists looking to channel their energy into something more productive than attending marches, their dance cards just got filled for the long hot Arizona summer. Time to get yourself a comfortable pair of walking shoes.

Last week former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods and former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson formed “Voters of Arizona” (no web site yet) to file referendums against the Chamber of Commerce organizations’ bills to effectively strip Arizonans of their constituional right to enact laws by citizens initiatives in Arizona. Expect to hear more about this in coming weeks.

Now the long anticipated referendum to overturn the “vouchers for all” bill passed by anti-public education Tea-Publcans in the Arizona legislature is ready to launch as well. The Arizona Republic reports, Parent group will seek to overturn Arizona school-voucher expansion:

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 has planned a rally and news conference on Monday at 5 p.m. at the state Capitol.

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 take effect 90 days after the state Legislature adjourns.

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.

“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,” said Beth Lewis, a teacher and founding Save our Schools Arizona member. “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.

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

So it will be a referendum more ways than one in every sense of the word.

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.

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.”

“The governor has been pretty clear about the fact that he doesn’t want anything else on the ballot with him in 2018,” Kotterman said. Education advocates had inquired about placing a separate initiative, Proposition 301, on the ballot for education, he said.

Many potential opponents

But Kotterman 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.

“It could easily be a million-dollar campaign on both sides,” Kotterman said.

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.”

* * *

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.”

Those of you have the knowledge and experience of working on initiatives, referendums and recalls should contact Save Our Schools Arizona to volunteer your services. The rest of you can volunteer your time or open up your checkbook. This is a people powered effort. Remember, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

The ultimate solution is to kick out of office every anti-public education Tea-Publcans in the Arizona legislature who voted for these bills. Enough is enough.

2 Responses to Save Our Schools Arizona referendum to overturn the ‘vouchers for all’ bill

  1. For Sure Not Tom

    I’ll donate some cash and vote for it.

    I don’t recall voting for the Chamber of Commerce, or the Goldwater Institute, or the Center for Arizona Policy for that matter.

  2. Mary Andersen

    I would be interested in volunteering to help obtain and/or vet signatures for the referendum. I live on the east side of Tucson.