Photo: Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools
State officials have verified that a group trying to stop the nation’s most expansive school choice program was short by tens of thousands of signatures when they claimed otherwise.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs announced Friday that Save Our Schools Arizona’s petition effort to put a referendum on the 2024 general election ballot came up short.
“While review of the petition sheets and the signatures thereon is ongoing, the Secretary of State’s Office has completed the statutorily prescribed review on enough sheets and signatures to determine that the number of petition signatures eligible for verification will fail to meet the constitutional minimum of 118,823 signatures,” Hobbs’ office told Save Our Schools Arizona in a letter sent Thursday.
The organization announced on Sept. 23 that it had submitted 141,714 signatures, enough to halt the expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program to all students from taking effect that day. After school choice supporters got digital copies of the sheets SOS Arizona turned in, they quickly realized that the effort was likely to fail.
Save Our Schools Arizona called the announcement a “devastating blow” to public schools that stand to lose some funding when students use the accounts to leave for another school of their choosing.
“The universal ESA voucher scheme passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Governor [Doug] Ducey has gone into effect despite our network’s herculean effort to stop it in its tracks,” the group wrote Friday.
The organization blamed their over-estimation on the flurry of last-minute petitions turned in, saying they relied on hand counts and volunteers to come up with the tally.
The Goldwater Institute, one of the nonprofits responsible for the ESA program’s success, called the announcement a victory for parents and students across Arizona.
“This is a monumental victory for students not only in Arizona, but also across the nation,” said Goldwater Institute Education Policy Director Matt Beienburg. “Lawmakers in every other state now know it’s possible to defeat the radical teachers unions and make students the priority of our education system once again.”
They note that the program started in 2011 serving 100 students. According to the Department of Education, parents have submitted more than 12,000 applications for ESAs as of this week.
The ESA program gives students a prepaid card that they can spend up to $7,000 on things like private school tuition, supplies, educational activities and more.