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Arizona Teachers’ Union Push to Overturn School-Choice Expansion Fails

The teachers’ union-backed campaign to overturn school-choice expansion in Arizona has failed due to a shortfall in signatures, the state’s secretary of state announced Thursday.

Under the expansion of Arizona’s universal-voucher program, known as the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA), enacted in June, over one million K-12 public school students in the state will become eligible to receive vouchers to fund their attendance at private, charter, or home schools, up from the 11,000 students who are currently eligible. To subject the expansion to a referendum, the anti-school-choice advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona had to collect 118,823 valid signatures.

After completing the statutorily prescribed review of petition sheets and signatures enclosed in them, Secretary Katie Hobbs and her office determined that the initiative does not “meet the constitutional minimum” and therefore “will not qualify for the 2024 General Election Ballot.”

“The number of petition signatures eligible for verification will fail to meet the constitutional minimum of 118,823 signatures” required by state law, Arizona state elections director Kori Lorick wrote Thursday.

Prior to Hobbs’ statement, pro-school choice think tanks had run their own preliminary calculations of Save Our Schools’ prospects based on their observations of early petitions.

As of Monday, the Goldwater Institute and Center for Arizona Policy, who reportedly had observers watching the petitions as they were scanned Friday, claimed that fewer than 89,000 signatures had been filed.

Anti-school-choice activists submitted 8,175 petition sheets, according to the Arizona secretary of state’s office, which they needed to fill with about 17.3 signatures per sheet to have their initiative succeed. However, there are only 15 lines per sheet, the AZ Mirror noted, making it improbable that the organization amassed enough support to derail the buildout of ESA. For instance, some sheets only had two signatures, school-choice advocate Corey DeAngelis found.

In an effort to predict the magnitude of the deficit, DeAngelis took a random sample of 100 petition sheets, which he said bore an average of 11.33 signatures per sheet. Multiplying that average by the 8,175 sheets submitted yields 92,622 signatures, which suggests there could be a shortfall of over 20,000 signatures for the school-choice opponents.

“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.”

On Friday, Save Our Schools boasted that it was heading into the counting with 141,714 signatures under its belt, well above the benchmark needed to send the issue to a 2024 vote. Hobbs’ office mentioned in its letter the movement’s premature confidence in filing an “estimate of 10,200 petition sheets containing an estimated 141,714 signature with the Secretary of State’s office.”

However, on Monday, the situation was looking more grim for Save Our Schools. “I think we will end up short, yes,” Beth Lewis, the executive director of the group, told AZ Mirror in an apparent concession. She backtracked later and said “our counts were necessarily estimates.”

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