Opponents likely to fall short in effort to block Arizona’s new ‘gold standard’ school choice law

Gov. Ducey celebrates Arizona’s newly expanded ESA program.

An Arizona anti-school-choice organization blocked a statewide expansion of choice in 2018, but its effort to defeat a similar law this year could be falling short.

The Daily Signal reports anti-choice group Save Our Schools turned in about 142,000 petition signatures to force a public vote on the state’s revolutionary new law extending school choice to all the state’s 1.1 million K-12 students.

With nearly 119,000 signatures needed to force a public referendum on expanded Empowerment Scholarship Accounts – which would provide each family with around $7,000 a year for a variety of educational needs, including tuition – the effort to kill the law might be expected to now succeed. But as The Daily Signal notes, those 142,000 signatures are a long way from being certified by the Arizona Secretary of State’s office – and, says Ballotpedia, on average only about 75% of such signatures are ultimately verified as coming from registered voters.

That would presumably leave SOS with only about 106,000 verified signatures – not enough to call a public vote to kill school choice. To get 119,000 of its 142,000 signatures certified, SOS would need a historically high 84% certification rate. 

Unless that happens, Arizona’s school choice law, the most expansive in the nation, would stand. And it would represent a landmark victory for educational freedom in America. 

For its part the Goldwater Institute, which supported Arizona’s school choice expansion, essentially declared the petition drive to block it dead on arrival. 

“Teachers’ unions and other opponents of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) have apparently fallen well short of the requisite 118,843 signatures needed to repeal the new law via ballot referendum, thanks to the efforts of the Goldwater Institute, the Center for Arizona Policy Action, and a statewide groundswell of parents,” the institute said in a statement Monday. 

“The preliminary results make it clear: Arizona families have rejected special interests’ attempts to take away their ability to choose the education that best meets their child’s unique needs,” Victor Riches, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute, said. “Families deserve the right to choose the best education option for their children, regardless of zip code, and now they’ll once again be able to exercise that right by applying for ESAs. 

“If those numbers hold and the measure does not make the ballot, Arizona families can again begin to apply for ESAs to help them choose the best educational environment for their children. ESAs are the end of the one-size-fits-all education that works for some, but not for many others.” 

Last week, writes The Daily Signal, SOS Executive Director Beth Lewis seemed to presage the defeat of the petition effort, offering “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 the fact is, support for school choice appears to have exploded since the 2018 vote – thanks in part to COVID-19 pandemic-related school shutdowns and parents’ discoveries about what’s being taught in public schools. 

“A Morning Consult poll released in August,” the Daily Signal notes, “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.’” 

In addition, when the SOS anti-choice petition drive started this summer, school choice supporters mounted a massive “Decline to Sign” counteroffensive that may have been successful at educating Arizona voters on the issue and persuading them not to sign the petition. 

School choice advocate Corey A. DeAngelis told The Lion at the time that, by supporting a petition opposing school choice, Arizonans were actually being asked to sign away their parental rights. 

“Arizona residents should never sign away their parental rights,” he told The Lion. “The money doesn’t belong to the government schools. Education funding is meant for educating children, not for protecting a particular institution.  

“Arizona just passed the gold standard of educational freedom. Every single family will be able to take their children’s education dollars to the education providers of their choosing. Arizona will now fund students, not systems.” 

Monday, DeAngelis was hopeful that would come to pass and the SOS petition drive would fail – in which case, he told The Lion, “families will be free from the clutches of the government school monopoly.”