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Arizona's Expansive Voucher-Like Program May Face Challenge at Ballot Box

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Arizona's new education savings accounts program is supposed to start next school year, but it's unlikely that families will receive money for private tuition before the first day of school because of a possible referendum and the law's late passage.

A new group, called Save Our Schools Arizona, is collecting signatures for a referendum to halt the law to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, which opens up eligibility for private tuition to all of the state's 1.1 million students. The voucher-like program is the most expansive one in the country, as I explained in a previous story about Arizona's new law.

Described as a grassroots, non-partisan group of parents and citizens, the organization last week pulled petitions for a ballot measure. If the group collects 75,321 signatures by Aug. 8, the law would be put on hold until the November 2018 election.

If they fall short of enough signatures, the law goes into effect on Aug. 9—90 days after its passage and one day after the petition deadline. Many Arizona schools begin classes in early August.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, Save Our Schools' communications director, said the group ran out of petitions at its first event to gather signatures last week. She estimates that 4,000 signatures were collected in the first five days of circulation. "Stop-by and sign" events are scheduled throughout the state.

Penich-Thacker said organizers began the drive because they are tired of what they says is the underfunding of Arizona's teachers and public schools—the state ranks near the bottom nationally. The new law would take even more money away from public schools.

"This was the last straw for a lot of people who thought that we had already cut education to the bone," said Penich-Thacker, who has children in traditional public schools. "We kind of see this as one part of a much larger message that Arizona has had enough of cutting public education."

While the petitions are being circulated, the Arizona eduation department is working on regulations for the ESAs, including how students would be prioritized for funding if the requests exceed the limit, said Stefan Swiat, the department's spokesman. A maximum of 5,500 new students can join the program annually, capped at 30,000 students in 2022.

"We're looking to expedite that so we can get students on," Swiat said. "We have to really ramp up in a short period of time."

While the law doesn't go into effect until the start of next school year, families can apply for funds anytime, Swiat said. The department generally recommends that families apply for accounts by May for the following school year, but there is no deadline. This school year, the department received the most applications in August and January.

Swiat said he doesn't foresee families missing out because the current program has always fallen below its limit. Before the new law was passed in April, the program slowly expanded for only certain groups of students: those who have disabilities, are in D- or F-rated schools, are in foster care, come from military families, or reside on a Native American reservation. About 3,100 students are enrolled in the current program, well below the cap.

Want to know the difference between education savings accounts and other voucher-like programs? Check out our explainer.

Contact Sarah Tully at [email protected].

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