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Public school advocates work to block voucher expansion — again

Earlier this summer, the Arizona Legislature passed a universal school voucher expansion bill. Now, members of Save Our Schools Arizona are trying to refer the measure to the ballot to give voters the last word. 

When House Bill 2853 passed in June, Beth Lewis and other public school advocates were outraged. 

“We were aghast and shocked. We didn’t think that lawmakers would actually go through with this,” Lewis said.

Lewis is the Executive Director of Save Our Schools Arizona. The group formed in 2017 specifically to refer another voucher expansion bill to the ballot.

The last referendum was a success — voters rejected voucher expansion 2 to 1.That bill would have made up to 30,000 Arizona students eligible to get state funds to attend a private or parochial school. 

With this latest bill, all 1.1 million students would have access to vouchers. 

“I’ve worked in Arizona schools for 12 years. I can tell you that not one school in the state can withstand a 20% cut.” — Beth Lewis

Lewis said that means a program that already diverts about $250 million from public schools, could drain more than $1 billion.

“That’s about a 20% cut across the board,” Lewis said. “I’ve worked in Arizona schools for 12 years. I can tell you that not one school in the state can withstand a 20% cut.”

Save Our Schools volunteers need to gather nearly 119,000 signatures from Arizona voters by Sept. 24. If they’re successful, that will put the latest voucher expansion plan on hold, so Arizonans can vote on it in 2024.

Sharon Kirsch has been spending her weekends at a table outside Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix, waving down customers and asking them to sign.

“We have people coming out of the woodwork to sign so we’re feeling pretty good about it,” Kirsch said. "A lot of people know about it, [and] are angry that we have to do this again.”

But proponents of the bill say there’s nothing to be angry about as long as the money follows the student. Christine Accurso started getting vouchers for her son’s education nine years ago. 

“They will lose not one dime,” she said, “unless a parent chooses to remove their child from a public school and place them in a private or homeschool, pod school, hybrid school, or micro school situation.”

Accurso is part of a group of parents protesting the efforts by Save Our Schools, asking voters to “decline to sign.” 

“[The voucher program] gives us $7,000 to be able to navigate this with our child and put them in the setting that fits them, rather than the $14,300 that a public school student would be getting,” Accurso said. “So it’s really a win-win.”

Save Our Schools advocates have argued that there isn’t enough oversight to ensure that money from the vouchers is used properly. Accurso disputes that.

“You submit your receipts through a system called ClassWallet,” Accurso said. “You can use vendors that have already been pre-approved from them. So you’re not gonna get your next quarter funding, till it’s been approved and they’ve looked through all of your receipts to make sure you didn’t spend it on random personal items.”

What there is plenty of scrutiny over is the signature-gathering process. Dawn Penich-Thacker worked on the 2017 Save Our Schools Arizona referendum. 

She said laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature allow the smallest errors to disqualify signatures.

“When I was collecting signatures in 2017 someone had agreed to sign my petition sheet,” Penich-Thacker said. “They turned the signature page over to look at the language of the bill and it ripped off, which invalidated the entire page. I am not kidding you, I cried.”

She said the good news is, public school advocates are a well-oiled machine now. They understand the process and have plenty of passionate volunteers to get it done.

After the validation process, they could still face legal challenges. That could mean tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

“The price tag alone is also a legal strategy to see if perhaps the folks running the petition movement can’t afford to even defend themselves,” Penich-Thacker said.

Linda Bunting-Blake is one of the voters who has already signed the new petition.

“We think we’ve got the issue settled, and then it seems like there are some legislators that feel like they want to tweak it a little bit, and it seems like we’re always trying to catch up here,” she said.

Bunting-Blake has 12 grandchildren, some in private school and some in public school.

“One of the things that pains me the most is that my children that go to Brophy [College Preparatory] are getting a stellar education,” she said. “That’s the kind of education that every child in Arizona should get and we’re not doing that right now.”

Even with the help of school vouchers, Bunting-Blake said not all families can afford a private school education and access to high quality learning, shouldn’t depend on one's socioeconomic status.

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Senior field correspondent Bridget Dowd has a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.