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Massive Expansion of Arizona School Choice Program Could be Blocked

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UPDATED

A few months after Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a major expansion of the state's most ambitious private school choice program into law, the program is on the verge of being blocked. 

A group that aims to halt the expansion says it has collected enough signatures for a petition to stop the new law from taking effect.

Save Our Schools Arizona says it has more than 100,000 signatures—enough to put the expansion on hold so that voters can directly weigh in on the law at the ballot box next year. The Associated Press reports that's 25 percent more signatures than required.

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Arizona lawmakers passed a bill expanding the state's education savings accounts program this spring. The program allows parents to pull their children out of public school and use the per-pupil funding the state allocates to each student on approved education expenses instead, such as private school tuition, tutoring services, or even text books for home schooling. 

The bill had the backing of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Ducey signed it into law in early April.

Originally the program was limited to a few select groups of students, such as those with disabilities or from low-performing schools.

Now all of Arizona's 1.1 million public school students are eligible for the program.

Only one other state has attempted to open up a private school choice program to all of its public school students, and that was Nevada. But that program has been put on hold indefinitely after the state's Supreme Court ruled last year that the way it was funded was unconstitutional. A bill to change the funding stream failed in the state legislature, in large part because control of the statehouse switched from Republican to Democrat in the 2016 elections.

Arizona's move to expand its education savings accounts program was welcome news to school choice advocates after their failure to revive Nevada's program.

Education savings accounts—which are the latest evolution in school voucher policy—have been on a slow but steady march across the country.

They were created first in Arizona in 2011. Florida jumped on board with its own program in 2014, although it is strictly limited to students with special needs.

Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina have since created their own ESA programs for students with special needs, with North Carolina joining the club just this spring.

Education savings accounts are an attractive alternative to traditional school vouchers, a policy that provides state money to parents to use on private school tuition. Because parents can opt to spend their state funds on education services beyond private schools, ESAs are less likely to run afoul of state constitutional language prohibiting public money from going to religious institutions.

Save Our Schools Arizona turned in the signatures it collected to the secretary of state's office on Tuesday, just before the expansion was scheduled to go into effect on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. State officials will work to verify whether the signatures on the petition are valid over the next week. 

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Photo: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey talks with 11-year-old Lourdes Garza, a 6th grader who attends a charter school in Phoenix, during a school choice rally at the state Capitol in Phoenix in January. —Bob Christie/AP-File

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