School choice proponents challenge anti-voucher initiative

Tom Jenney
Tom Jenney

PHOENIX – On April 6, 2017 Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law SB 1431, empowerment scholarships; expansion; phase-in, which would phase in an expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program, commonly referred to as vouchers.

The ESA program was originally established in 2011 to provide educational options for special needs students outside the public school system.

The program has since been expanded to include students attending D and F rated schools or districts, foster care children, children in military families, siblings of current or previous ESA recipients, school tuition organization recipients who are eligible for the Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program, and students residing on an Indian Reservation.

SB 1431 phases in an expansion of the program over a four year period to allow any students to apply, as follows:

  1. Beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, children who currently attend or are eligible to attend a public school in a kindergarten program or any grades of 1, 6 and 9;
  2. Beginning in the 2018-2019 school year, children in any grades 2, 7 and 10;
  3. Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, children in any grades 3, 8 and 11; and
  4. Beginning in the 2020-2021 school year, children in any grades 4, 5 and 12.

It extends the temporary enrollment cap through 2022, which is currently set to expire at the end of 2019 and includes provisions for capping the program, testing, eligibility and other requirements.

ESAs are funded at 90 percent of the base support level and charter additional assistance that would otherwise be allocated to the ESA student’s prior school district or charter school.

There are currently an estimated 3,100 students enrolled in the ESA Program, while the number of new ESAs approved by the Arizona Department of Education would be capped at 0.5 percent of total public school enrollment through 2019, or approximately 5,500 new students annually.

Teachers unions and public school administrator associations, which oppose voucher programs, have organized to fight the expansion of the ESA Program and on May 11, Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ) Political Action Committee was formed to temporarily halt the expansion until an initiative could be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.

SOSAZ had until Aug. 8, 2017 to collect 75,321 valid signatures to place the initiative on the ballot and, on the afternoon of Aug. 8, SOSAZ turned in approximately 111,000 petition signatures.

Meanwhile, Tom Jenney, senior legislative advisor for the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a proponent of school choice, sent out a clarion call for volunteers to verify the petition sheets for a variety of non-compliance issues that could have not only specific signatures but entire pages of petitions thrown out in a court challenge.

With guidance from attorneys Kory Langhofer and Thomas Basile of Statecraft PLLC, which specializes in government and political law, volunteers that have been showing up en masse since last Thursday, appear to be finding a good number of problems with the petitions.

There is only a small window of time during which challenges may be filed and only a superior court judge may determine if a sufficient number of signatures are considered invalid to toss the initiative off the ballot, which would allow the ESA expansion to commence.

Volunteers will continue to review petitions for non-compliance through the end of the week.