Arizona Activists, Buoyed by Teachers Unions, Take Aim at State Voucher Program

A group of Arizonans rallying under the Save Our Schools banner are working to defeat the most expansive school choice program in the country.

AP/Nam Y. Huh
An opinion from the Oklahoma attorney general could pave the way for religious charter schools across the country. AP/Nam Y. Huh

This summer, Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, signed what he called a “historic” school choice expansion into law, but the education savings accounts it promises could yet elude the families of the Grand Canyon State.

Arizona’s new Empowerment Savings Account program allows non-public school families access to more than $6,000 in state-funding for the educational expenses of their choosing — roughly equivalent to what the state pays per-student in public schools.

In July, the governor signed into law a bill that would make these education saving accounts available to every student — stripping all eligibility requirements.

The program is on track to being the first universal education savings account program in the country, but a group of public school advocates are working to ensure that the expansion is never implemented.

A group of Arizonans that advocates for greater public school spending, Save Our Schools Arizona, could halt the program via the state’s Voter Protection Amendment.

“We will not rest until we defeat the unaccountable voucher grift working to dismantle our public schools,” the group wrote in a newsletter in June. 

In order to do so, they might just need to collect 12,000 signatures.

According to Arizona state law, a referendum can get on the ballot if petitioners can get valid signatures equaling at least as many people who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

The legislature must comply with the democratic outcome of any ballot initiative on the ballot — so if voters reject the expansion of the education savings account program, the legislature must follow suit and overturn the law.

In 2018, a similar education savings account plan was defeated by ballot referendum. The 2018 bill would have gradually increased the percentage of students eligible for education savings accounts over four years — eventually capping the total number of scholarships available at the number of students enrolled in the program in its fourth year.

The new legislation makes the scholarships universally available without any cap on the number of students enrolled.

Save Our Schools spent more than $680,000 on its campaign to defeat the measure, compared to the $70,000 spent by school choice supporters. This time, however, the national school choice movement is more invested in the outcome of the vote. 

Since 2020, Save Our Schools’ political action committee has received more than $100,000 in funding from the Invest in Arizona PAC, which is heavily financed by the state’s teacher union. Invest in Arizona PAC also has received more than $2.4 million from the largest teachers’ union in the country, the National Education Association.

If Save Our Schools collects the requisite number of signatures by September 24, the expansion measure will be halted until at least 2024. The program could not move forward until the measure appears on the ballot in the next election cycle — giving the public school and school choice advocates two years to fight for the hearts and minds of Arizona’s voters.

The New York Sun

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