Will Arizona Voucher Law Face Referendum? Grassroots Group Rallying at Capitol

The anti-voucher volunteer group Save Our Schools plans to launch a referendum that aims to put this year's voucher-expansion law on next year's ballot for voters to decide.
The anti-voucher volunteer group Save Our Schools plans to launch a referendum that aims to put this year's voucher-expansion law on next year's ballot for voters to decide. Arizona State University
Arizona's new voucher expansion program, which subsidizes private school tuition by taking money from public schools, faces a possible threat by a grassroots group critical of the law.

Save Our Schools, a volunteer group made up of "concerned Arizona parents, teachers, and business leaders," plans a rally at the State Capitol today to launch its anti-voucher law referendum. Several members of the new coalition will speak about the effort, followed by statements from parents, businesspeople, school board members, and teachers.

A referendum is like a citizens' initiative that refers existing law to the ballot for approval by voters.

To secure a spot on the November 2018 ballot, Save Our Schools will need to collect 75,321 valid voter signatures within 90 days of the State Legislature's adjournment, which is expected this week.

About 200 people are expected to show up at the Capitol's Rose Garden for the 5 p.m. rally today, said the group's spokeswoman, Dawn Penich Thacker.

"It's for friends and education advocates, to let them know we're not giving up yet ... and find out what's next," Thacker said of the rally.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program signed by Governor Doug Ducey last month "wouldn't be that bad if our public schools were already in good shape," she said. "The fact is, we are already starving in the education system."

click to enlarge Dawn Penich Thacker - SAVE OUR SCHOOLS
Dawn Penich Thacker
Save Our Schools
Thacker noted that even with a current cap on the voucher-expansion of 30,000 students, a February report by the state Joint Legislative Budget Committee pegged the cost to Arizona's general fund rising to $25 million a year by 2021, with additional costs possible.

The planned referendum could be joined on the November 2018 by two or three other referendums that target a series of anti-citizens' initiative laws passed by the Legislature this year.

Unlike those possible ballot measures, each of which also needs to collect 75,321 signatures, Save Our Schools won't be using paid petition gatherers, Thacker said.

"We realize this is a daunting task," Thacker said. "We're planning to do it 100 percent grassroots."

The group also launched a campaign website today with information about the effort and how to donate time or money.

"We've had an incredible, positive reaction from education groups and the business community," she said.

Members of the business community who want a strong, educated workforce are interested, she said. And so are the multitudes of Arizona teachers "who have been a huge part of the opposition [to vouchers] from the beginning."

Calls to the voucher-expansion law sponsor, State Senator Debbie Lesko, and the Arizona Education Association about the referendum plan weren't immediately returned.

If you go:

What: Save Our Schools rally
Why: Launch of referendum campaign against expanded voucher law
When: 5:30 p.m. today
Where: Rose Garden, Arizona State Capitol, 1700 West Washington Street
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.