The effort to block a massive expansion of education choice in Arizona appears to be running out of steam.
Beth Lewis, executive director of the anti-school choice group Save Our Schools Arizona put on her best game face Friday afternoon as she announced that her group has gathered enough signatures to put the recent expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program on the ballot for voters to decide.
But it wasn’t hard to detect Lewis’ disappointment.
Earlier this summer, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a bill sponsored by Arizona House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, to expand eligibility for the state’s ESA policy to all 1.1 million of the state’s K-12 students.
That would mean all families could receive about $7,000 to use for educational expenses such as private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online courses, special-needs therapy, and more.
The program is widely hailed as the gold standard of education choice, cementing Arizona’s first-place ranking for education choice in The Heritage Foundation’s new Education Freedom Report Card. Arizona placed second nationwide for education freedom overall (including rankings of education choice, academic transparency, regulatory freedom, and return on investment for education spending), behind only Florida.
Lewis’ group acted quickly to contest the ESA expansion. Under Arizona state law, voters may refer recently enacted legislation to the ballot for voter approval if they gather the signatures of registered Arizona voters equal to at least 5% of all votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.
In 2018, Save Our Schools Arizona ran a similar referendum campaign, in which it gathered about 111,000 signatures—comfortably exceeding the threshold of about 75,000 valid voter signatures. This year, sending the issue to referendum required about 119,000 valid signatures.
“Valid” is the key word. Signatures may be invalid for a variety of reasons—for example, if the signer isn’t registered to vote in Arizona, the signature or address doesn’t match what’s on file, and so on.
According to Ballotpedia, the average signature validity rate of ballot initiative petitions such as this one is 75.3%. Even with an 80% validity rate, Save Our Schools would need about 150,000 signatures to meet the threshold.
But Save Our Schools turned in only about 142,000 signatures Friday afternoon. Unless the group achieved an unusually high validity rate—84%—it is likely that it has failed to obtain enough valid signatures.
It appears that Save Our Schools Arizona already sees the writing on the wall. Earlier this week, Lewis offered a litany of excuses to the left-wing media outlet Salon, complaining about the higher signature threshold relative to 2018, the 80-day window to collect signatures, and likely scrutiny from the legal system.
But Lewis reserved her greatest ire for the efforts of school choice groups such as the Goldwater Institute and the American Federation for Children, to protect the expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Salon reported:
‘They’re already signaling massive legal battles,’ said SOS Arizona director Beth Lewis, who said that petitions are frequently challenged over not just issues like duplicate signatures but also incomplete addresses for signees and smudged notary markings.
Lewis appeared especially aggravated by the pro-ESA grassroots activists who urged voters to decline to sign her group’s petitions. According to Salon, she accused these activists (without evidence) of being backed by the Goldwater Institute and American Federation for Children:
In the meantime, the final weeks of petition gathering have turned hostile, as groups backed by the Goldwater Institute and AFC have launched a massive ‘Decline to Sign’ campaign, holding protests at petition gathering spots, urging supporters to call businesses near petition sites to complain that ‘this is hurting our children’s education’ and videotaping both petition circulators and voters who sign, posting clips of those interactions online. In this atmosphere, petition volunteers say they’ve been surrounded, harassed and followed for blocks on end, while pro-ESA protesters say they’ve been insulted or sworn at by referendum supporters.
While Lewis said there wasn’t ‘any organized opposition’ to the  petition process … this year, ‘It’s like a war zone at some of these events.’
The “Decline to Sign” protesters, who want to protect the ESA program, see it differently.
“Hundreds of volunteer parents from all different backgrounds have come together to peacefully hold signs and talk to voters about the ESA program,” said Taylor Hoffman, a mother of two from Gilbert, Arizona, including one child with special needs.
Hoffman described how she and fellow protesters have had great success in persuading voters not to sign the Save Our Schools petitions. In one case, they approached a father who was considering signing.
“We brought up the fact that Save Our Schools has a history of fighting against multiple school choice laws in Arizona, including the original ESA program that helps special-needs students,” Hoffman said. “The dad decided not to sign and walked away.”
One of the greatest hurdles for Save Our Schools Arizona is voter support for education choice, which has reached all-time highs in the wake of prolonged school shutdowns, Zoom school, and concerns over-politicized classrooms.
A Morning Consult poll released in August found that 66% of Arizonans and 75% of parents of school-age children said they support Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Meanwhile, only a third of voters said they believe that their local district schools are on the “right track.”
Save Our Schools’ assault on education choice at a time when parents need it most may have awakened a sleeping giant and filled it with a terrible resolve.
“The grassroots movement of Decline to Sign not only slowed down SOS signature gatherers, but it created a community of like-minded folks that genuinely care about what is best for kids,” said Grant Botma, a father of three from Gilbert, Arizona. “No politics. No hidden agenda. Just parents fighting for what is best for their kids and kids in the community.”
The coming weeks certainly will see signature challenges and likely will see litigation. One thing is for certain: Arizona parents will be watching.
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