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Petition to block voucher law fails; application deadline extended – Cronkite News – Arizona PBS

A volunteer collects signatures in Phoenix last week, days before the deadline for submitting 118,823 signatures to block an expansion of state empowerment scholarship accounts and put the issue on the 2024 ballot. Organizers believed have greatly exceeded that amount by last week’s deadline, but the secretary of state said the group had not met the minimum and the law would go into effect. (Photo by Justin Spangenthal/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON — The secretary of state’s office still matters, but he had seen enough on Friday to say that a petition campaign to block expansion of the state’s school voucher program had failed to reach required signatures. .

The announcement by Secretary of State Katie Hobbs that Save Our Schools Arizona has failed to collect the necessary 118,823 signatures, means HB 2853 can go into effect. This made Friday a “joyful day” for supporters of Universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

“It took all of us being able to fight for it, and in 2022 parents really learned what it meant to stand up for our kids,” said Christine Accurso, a Gilbert parent with a child already in the program. “We will always defend this law…and we will make it better and better over time.”

Friday was also supposed to be the deadline for parents to request reimbursement for school expenses in the first quarter of fiscal year 2023, but the Arizona Department of Education extended the deadline for another two weeks due to a large number of families trying to apply.

Opponents accepted the apparent defeat of their petition, but said they were Do not abandon the fight: They will now focus their efforts on electing “pro-public education” lawmakers, an opposition leader has said.

“For everyone I’ve spoken to, people are just devastated by the impact this will have on our public schools and on our students,” said Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools.

It was a dramatic change from a week earlier, when Lewis and others held a jubilant press conference outside Hobbs’ office to hand over what they believed to be 141,714 signatures, more than enough to put the ballot voucher act of 2024 – and stop it in the meantime.

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But proponents of the program did their own review and said on Monday that Save Our Schools had grossly overstated their numbers. Based on the number of petition sheets submitted, the Goldwater Institute and the Center for Arizona Policy estimated that there were only 80,000 to 90,000 signatures.

Hobbs said in his letter to Save Our Schools on Thursday that the count was underway and a final number would be available “in the coming days”, but Lewis acknowledged that the petition campaign was over.

“We take the Secretary of State’s word fully and accept this decision (and) we are considering how we want to move forward,” she said.

At issue is HB 2853, a law passed this year that significantly expands state empowerment scholarship accounts. This program provides public funds to families who can then use the money for home schooling or charter school expenses, private school tuition, or other expenses if their needs arise. child are not satisfied in their public school.

The New version of the law makes funding available to any family in the state. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ben Toma, R-Glendale, said families get the funds in exchange for removing their child from the public school system.

“I hope other states will follow,” Toma said on Friday. “This will be a win not only for kids in Arizona, but potentially for kids in other states as well.”

Grades 1 through 12 who are approved for the program will receive about $6,500 from the state, while kindergartners will receive about $4,000. It’s the largest voucher program in the country, and Toma said he hopes to see Arizona become “the gold standard in terms of school choice.”

Parents who wish to access the Universal ESA Account must apply to the state Department of Education. Once the ministry returns an ESA contract, the family has 30 days to sign and submit it.

Beth Lewis last week when Save Our Schools Arizona thought it was delivering more than 140,000 petition signatures to stop the state’s expanded ESA program. The petition campaign did not live up to this and did not do the minimum necessary. (Photo courtesy of Save Our Schools Arizona)

The department said Friday that reviewing applications and approving the contract “could take a few weeks” and that it would work with the Arizona Treasurer’s Office to open ESA accounts for new program participants and disburse. the money.

“Today’s victory took years to build, it took a long time to get here,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy. “It gives all schoolchildren the opportunity where it was previously limited to certain groups of children.”

But critics argue that the ESA’s universal program will give state money to many families who don’t need it, taking much-needed funds from public schools that have traditionally been among the worst-funded in the world. country.

“While the results may not be felt tomorrow and in public school classrooms, I think very soon we will see, you know, the inevitable impacts, which include fewer resources for children, the firing teachers and possibly closing schools,” Lewis said. “None of this is what voters want.”

She added that much of the money will go to private schools “which are not accountable to the public – and we expect that number to explode exponentially”.

The Department for Education would not provide updated application numbers on Friday, but said last week it had already received 10,906 applications for the universal ESA program, and that 76% of these families had no children in public school at the time of the application.

Lewis said those she spoke to “are just devastated by the impact this will have on our public schools and on our students.” As her group weighs its options, she said it now sees it as “an election issue”.

“The most important thing, and what we’re going to be laser-focusing on…is making sure Arizona voters connect the dots and are able to vote for the pro-public education candidates of top to bottom,” Lewis said.

She said her group aims to “assure the people of Arizona that under no circumstances are we going to give up fully funded public schools in every neighborhood for every child.”

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