Save Our Schools Arizona volunteers stand outside of the Arizona School for the Arts to show their disdain for a controversial school voucher law Governor Doug Ducey signed as he speaks to students inside.
Save Our Schools Arizona volunteers stand outside of the Arizona School for the Arts to show their disdain for a controversial school voucher law Governor Doug Ducey signed as he speaks to students inside.
Molly Longman

Sidewalk Diplomacy: Goldwater, SOS Arizona Take Opposing Messages to the Streets

Thirteen-year-old Ashley Perez and longtime litigator Timothy Sandefur weren't supposed to be at the Save Our Schools Arizona rally Thursday morning. But they ended up on the same sidewalk, supporting different sides of an issue that could change public education for Arizonans in a big way.

Perez skipped school.The eighth-grader's mom signed her out of class at the Arizona School for the Arts so she could join over a dozen education advocates with signs reading “education is a right” and “stop vouchers"  in front of her school on the corner of Third Street and McDowell Road.

Sandefur, the Goldwater Institute’s vice president for litigation, saw the anti-voucher signage while driving to work. It was fortuitous timing. Just the day before, the Goldwater Institute officially got in on a lawsuit against SOS Arizona, the grassroots group that gathered more than 111,000 signatures in an effort to refer the voucher law to the 2018 ballot.

So Sandefur decided to stop at the rally to offer media outlets an opposing view on vouchers, which could allow up to 30,000 Arizona students, regardless of family income,  to use public funds for private-school tuition, therapies, and other education-related services.

And as Perez chanted "save our schools" and Sandefur made the rounds with media outlets outside, Governor Doug Ducey, who signed the expansion into law, was inside giving a speech at Perez’s school as part of his statewide “Back to School” tour.

Perez and other demonstrators standing at the public charter school’s gates wanted to send the Republican governor a message: They won’t stop fighting the expansive school voucher law.

“ASA is a really good school and I believe that every student in Arizona in any school in any district should be able to have the same opportunities that we have here,” Perez said of Arizona School for the Arts. “You always see adults trying to get people to be aware, but I feel like having kids here representing this issue is more empowering.”

Perez was the only ASA student who attended the rally, which was held during school hours, but SOS Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker says the school voucher program could affect over a million
students like her.

That’s why a patchwork collection of moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, and retirees worked tirelessly this summer to block the voucher law that would allow all of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students to apply for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

Voucher opponents say the program would siphon too much money out of public schools and public charter schools like Perez’s to subsidize private and religious education that many families using the vouchers could already afford. But backers argue the law would increase school choice.

This month SOS Arizona successfully turned 111,540 signatures in to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office, which last Friday approved 108,224 signatures for the next stage of verification.

SOS Arizona needs a total of 75,321 signatures to be validated to ensure voters will get to decide whether the voucher program stays or goes.

But they still have several major hurdles to clear.

Since SOS Arizona brought over 110,000 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office on a big, yellow school bus, tensions haven’t faded into a soft chorus of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

The signature validation process is still underway, but several pro-school choice groups have already been working together to file two lawsuits against the Secretary of State’s office and SOS Arizona, including the Goldwater Institute.

The lawsuits come just weeks after observers from the American Federation for Children, Americans for Prosperity, and other school-choice advocates surveyed the signature-verification process, taking notes about petitions they believed could be considered invalid. SOS Arizona observed the process as well.

“They are challenging individual signatures, they’re challenging the notaries, they’re challenging the wording of the petition itself,” Penich-Thacker said of the lawsuits. “They’re just throwing it all at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

Penich-Thacker said it's a bit overwhelming to have big-money, conservative organizations coming after a group of moms, grandmas, teachers, and volunteers. That said, she’s confident in the validity of SOS Arizona’s work.

“It is definitely intimidating, but I wouldn’t say we’re scared because we know what we did this summer,” Penich-Thacker said. “We know how well we trained everyone. We know we did things the right way. We did it honestly. We did it legally.”

In a statement Wednesday, the Goldwater Institute claimed the preliminary review of the signatures’ validity revealed irregularities.

“By filing thousands of extremely questionable signatures, those who oppose a wider range of educational options for our state’s kids tried to pull the wool over the eyes of Arizonans,” Goldwater Institute President and CEO Victor Riches said in the statement.

“This delay has put many families’ educational futures in limbo as the school year begins. This does a tremendous disservice to all of the parents and children whose main concern is not politics, but are simply seeking a better education that fits their needs and helps them achieve their dreams.”

Sandefur reinforced that sentiment at Thursday's rally.

“Our position is that politics shouldn’t take priority over a parent’s choice,” he said to Phoenix New Times.

SOS Arizona volunteers have said it’s important to keep in mind that their referendum wouldn’t totally squash the voucher initiative — it would give voters a choice of whether they’d like to see the expanded voucher system in place. But Sandefur says the Goldwater Institute is getting involved because Arizona shouldn't be putting the individual rights of parents up for a vote.

“In our view, individual rights should take priority,” Sandefur said. “Even if everybody in Arizona wanted to take away my right to decide where to send my child to school, that would be wrong.”

Lawsuits aside, SOS Arizona still has a long road of signature validation ahead before the voucher law is officially referred to the ballot.

After approving 108,224 signatures, the Secretary of State’s office sent a computer-generated random sample of 5 percent of the total signatures collected to Arizona county recorders. The counties will verify that each name in the sample is that of a registered voter in that county, Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s spokesman Matt Roberts previously told New Times during an interview at the beginning of August.

The ratio of good versus bad signatures will be applied to the 108,224 to determine the total number of valid signatures.

In a Wednesday statement, SOS Arizona said it had a 100 percent verification rate from Graham County and an 89 percent rate from Gila County. In other words, things are looking good. That said, Maricopa County results will be a determining factor.

The remaining counties have until September 11 to complete their verification, the statement said.

Penich-Thacker says SOS Arizona has faith in their work, but they'll continue making their voices heard until the fate of the expanded voucher program is in the hands of voters.

They'll keep making signs. They'll keep protesting on sidewalks like the one Perez and Sandefur shared Thursday morning.

“We’re not giving up on sending the message that ESAs are bad for public education,” Penich-Thacker said.

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