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The universal school voucher challenge has officially failed

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The universal school voucher challenge has officially failed

Sep 30, 2022 | 1:20 pm ET
By Caitlin Sievers
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The universal school voucher challenge has officially failed
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Members of Save Our Schools chant during a news conference on the Capitol grounds in Phoenix Sept. 23, 2022, after the group claimed it collected 141,714 signatures from voters who want to see the expansion of the state's school voucher program put to a voter referendum. Photo by Caitlin Sievers | Arizona Mirror

Public school advocates did not collect enough signatures to block universal school vouchers and force a public vote in 2024, the Secretary of State’s Office announced Friday morning

The expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which Republican lawmakers approved earlier this year, makes a program that had previously been implemented in a limited capacity available to all 1.1 million Arizona students. The program gives participants about $7,000 to pay for private school, homeschooling or other educational options — and it can be socked away to pay for college in the future. 

Now that the referendum effort has failed, the Arizona Department of Education announced that it would begin to approve voucher applications received for the expansion. 

Save Our Schools Arizona, the group that hoped to put the expansion to a referendum, announced on Sept. 23 when it turned in its petitions that it collected 141,714 signatures, more than enough to get it on the 2024 ballot. 

But it soon became clear that was incorrect. 

“Though our estimated signature count was much higher, the discrepancy was influenced by several factors, including the incredibly high volume of returns of petitions in the final week, days, and hours of the campaign,” Save Our Schools said in a statement on Friday. “Our grassroots campaign relied on hand counts and volunteer hours, in stark contrast to deep-pocketed special interests like the Goldwater Institute who use sophisticated software to further their goal of dismantling public education in Arizona.”

The Secretary of State’s Office said that it would release signature totals once it completes a full review of the petitions, as is required by law. 

According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, the group filed 8,175 petition sheets. That means the group would have needed about 17.3 signatures per petition sheet to hit the number of signatures claimed — an impossibility, as there are only 15 lines per sheet. 

The Goldwater Institute and Center for Arizona Policy — conservative groups that have advocated for the school voucher expansion and marshaled a campaign to hinder Save Our Schools Arizona’s referendum effort — claimed that fewer than 89,000 signatures were actually filed. 

“This is a monumental victory for students not only in Arizona, but also across the nation,” said Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute. “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.”

Looking ahead, Save Our Schools is dedicated to documenting and tracking the amount of taxpayer dollars going to private schools through the program and to ensuring that the public knows the program’s financial impact on public schools. 

“This loss is not about us, it’s about the devastating blow to public education, that is what we’re mourning right now,” Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools told the Arizona Mirror Friday. 

***UPDATE This story has been updated to include comments from Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona.