Jun 28, 2022 - Politics

Save Our Schools Arizona prepares to fight expansion of ESA program

Illustration of a school sign depicting a person holding a clipboard.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Save Our Schools Arizona is preparing for the likelihood that Gov. Doug Ducey will sign legislation that expands the voucher-style Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program to all K-12 students.

What's happening: The group successfully referred a previous expansion of the ESA program to the ballot in 2018, when it was overwhelmingly rejected by voters. It is considering doing the same if Ducey signs House Bill 2853.

  • Once Ducey signs the bill, Save Our Schools will have 90 days to collect at least 118,823 valid signatures.
  • If the group collects enough signatures, the expansion plan would go on hold until voters can weigh in during the 2024 general election.

There's more: Beth Lewis, a spokesperson for Save Our Schools, says the group is considering other options as well, including litigation under the Arizona Constitution's Voter Protection Act (VPA).

  • The VPA severely restricts the legislature's ability to alter voter-approved laws.
  • Lewis says Save Our Schools could sue under the VPA because voters already rejected ESA expansion four years ago.
  • Yes, but: Whether the VPA could prevent lawmakers from enacting a law similar to one voters already rejected is an untested legal theory, Lewis acknowledges to Axios.

Lewis says Save Our Schools' national funders have also approached the group about a possible citizen initiative for 2024 that would enshrine the current limitations in the ESA program, including helping only students with disabilities or those who attend failing schools.

The other side: Republican Rep. Ben Toma, who sponsored the ESA legislation, says things have changed a lot since 2018, when voters defeated the last expansion law.

  • Toma says unpopular education policies enacted during the pandemic have increased public support for school-choice programs.
  • He also says that many ESA supporters, including himself, voted against the 2018 law because there was a cap on the number of students who would be eligible, meaning the VPA would have prevented future expansion.

What's next: Save Our Schools will announce its plans either this week or next, likely depending on if or when Ducey signs the bill.

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