By Thomas Clancy
Arizona public school children and their parents are breathing a little easier after Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret Mahoney ruled last month that proponents of private school vouchers lacked standing to block a voter referendum on a massive expansion of the state’s Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher program, deceptively called “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.”
In 2017, the Arizona Legislature enacted a bill that would immediately remove nearly all eligibility limits for ESA vouchers and dramatically increase the number of families that can access public funds for private education expenses. ESA vouchers, a scheme promoted by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are personal bank accounts in which the state deposits taxpayer money for parents to use for a wide range of private education costs, including tuition for private and religious schools and, in some cases, homeschooling expenses.
After Governor Doug Ducey signed the bill to expand ESA vouchers, Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ), a coalition of parents, teachers and community members, launched a petition campaign to place the voucher bill on the ballot for a popular vote. Within the allotted time under Arizona’s referendum process, SOSAZ secured enough signatures of registered voters to put the law on hold pending a vote on the November 2018 ballot.
Voucher proponents, backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, filed a lawsuit alleging various flaws in how voter signatures were collected for the ballot referendum. SOSAZ filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the individual pro-voucher plaintiffs in the lawsuit did not have legal standing to challenge the referendum petition. Judge Mahoney agreed and dismissed the complaint. The voucher proponents may appeal the ruling, but so far Arizona voters will have the opportunity in November to make the final decision on whether to significantly increase the expenditure of public funds on private schooling.
The SOSAZ court victory comes against a backdrop of Arizona’s severe and chronic underfunding of its public schools. In Education Law Center’s National Report Card, Is School Funding Fair?, Arizona ranks 48th in the nation on school funding, spending just $6,522 per pupil. Additionally, the state distributes substantially less funding to schools with higher numbers of poor and at-risk students. The last thing Arizona’s public school children need is the loss of even more public dollars to subsidize private and religious schools.
Thomas Clancy, Esq., is an attorney at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP in Los Angeles. MTO is a partner in Voucher Watch with ELC.
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