SOS Arizona May Have Won Its Race to Put School Vouchers Law on Ballot — For Now

Tom Giller collects signatures in front of Tempe Public Library.EXPAND
Tom Giller collects signatures in front of Tempe Public Library.
Molly Longman

Tom Giller is a patient man. The 64-year-old stands in front of a table covered in clipboards and petitions and one tiny American flag. He cheerfully asks passersby toting children and books: Are you a registered voter? Are you interested in saving public schools?

Most of them walk right on by, sometimes smiling and sometimes blatantly ignoring Giller. He’s not deterred, though the sun is scorching on this late July day.

“They’re taking money out of public schools!” he calls after a woman carrying children’s books and holding a young boy in a superhero T-shirt’s hand.

The woman hesitantly turns back to Giller and wearily looks at the “Save Our Schools” poster taped to the front of Giller’s table. She signs.

“Mom’s doing democracy,” Giller says to the boy. “It’s annoying, but it’s fun — in a certain way.”

The boy smiles.

One signature down.

One of the 75,321 signatures Giller and the political advocacy group he's volunteering for, Save Our Schools Arizona, needs to collect by Tuesday, August 8.

It appears today that SOS Arizona has already surpassed its goal. Now, it must wait for the secretary of state's office to validate the signatures.

Giller is working because of Senate Bill 1431, one of the most expansive school-voucher laws in the United States, which was signed into law in April.

The law would allow all of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students to apply for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which was previously only available to select students such as low-income children, kids with disabilities, and siblings of students who qualified.

Each student accepted into the program would be given public funds to use for private-school tuition, therapies, and other education-related services. The new plan has a cap, allowing an estimated 30,000 students into the voucher program by 2022. About 3,360 students use the program now.

Proponents of the Republican-sponsored law say it will increase school choice and a parent’s ability to decide what kind of school is right for their child. But Giller and other opponents of the law say it would siphon too much money out of public schools to subsidize private and religious education that many families using the vouchers could already afford. 

That’s why in May, thousands of parents, teachers, and public school advocates got together to form the grassroots organization Save Our Schools Arizona, the group’s communications director, Dawn Penich-Thacker, said.

The group had 12,000 printed petitions, more than 2,000 volunteers, and one goal: to refer the school voucher law to Arizona voters by getting it on the 2018 ballot.

“Our schools are already starving and struggling to get by,” Penich-Thacker said. “You can’t look at any school and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take $50,000 away from you and it won’t affect you’ ... One get getting a bonus shouldn't hurt everyone else."

Giller and the SOS Arizona team say their referendum is one of the few things that can protect Arizona's public school system from the law — and, by association, state Senator Debbie Lesko, who sponsored the original bill.

SOS Arizona had just 90 days to complete the referendum, starting after the last day of the legislative session in May — a short period of time to collect a lot of signatures. In July, the organization began paying "a handful" of signature-gatherers as they scrambled to meet their lofty goal.

To make matters more difficult, this legislative session, Governor Doug Ducey signed two measures that could make it more difficult for average citizens to put measures on the ballot. Organizations like SOS Arizona can no longer pay petition-gatherers based on the number of signatures they gather, a common practice of grassroots organizations, and judges can keep initiatives off the ballot if they don't meet “strict compliance” with all election laws.

Penich-Thacker said today that the group already has collected more than 100,000 signatures that it will present to the secretary of state on Tuesday afternoon. It's enough to meet their goal — unless the secretary of state finds enough of the signatures aren't valid or in compliance with the state's strict laws. Basically, the group needs to literally cross all their "t"s and dot all their "i"s to put the petition through. Penich-Thacker said she estimates 80 percent of the signatures are valid.

The secretary of state will let SOS Arizona know in a few months whether its referendum was valid and successful. For now, the school voucher law, which would have taken effect on Wednesday, has been postponed until the secretary of state's decision is made.

The ESA program allocates 90 percent of the state money that would have been given to the district school or charter school previously attended by the student to their family, putting it into an account that parents or guardians can access using cards on a debit-like system.

As Giller and Penich-Thacker see it, if enough students decide to leave public schools, the more children take advantage of the program, the more state money will be taken away from Arizona’s already suffering public school system.

And Giller is dedicated to saving that system, so dedicated he's spent a good chunk of his summer standing in front of libraries, schools, and splash pads asking strangers to sign his petitions to halt a controversial law expanding Arizona’s school voucher program. He’s made trips to Payson and Flagstaff to gather signatures.

"Even when the planes weren't landing, I was out collecting signatures in front of Burton Barr [Central Library] in 119-degree heat," Giller says proudly.

But the free speech zone in front of the Tempe Public Library is one of his favorite spots to catch parents bringing their kids to summer reading programs and grandmas checking out Nora Ephron novels.

On this Friday in late July, he stands in the shade of a small tree in the library's courtyard as the mid-morning sun snakes temperatures up to 100 degrees. He and SOS Arizona have 12 days left to meet their goals.

The clock is ticking.

As he chats up a young man and his father who've stopped to sign a petition, a young woman passing by compliments Giller on his safari-style pith helmet hat.

“Thank you!” Giller bellows. “This is my pithy hat! I’m feeling pithy today.”

Pithy, concise, forcefully expressive — that’s Giller in a nutshell for you.

Giller is the type of person who will quote Henry Ford in casual conversation. He’s the guy who will chit-chat with you about what democracy means for hours if you let him. The real estate broker and former Republican is something of a state and local politics junkie, and seems to know the ins and outs of almost every bill to hit the floor of the Arizona legislature in the last 32 years.

This isn’t his first referendum rodeo. Back in 2008, he was involved in a referendum in Scottsdale involving a rezoning order for high-density, multifamily housing. The referendum ultimately failed and didn’t make it to the ballot.

“By definition, referendums are almost always run by amateurs,” the Giller laughs.

Referendums take a lot of manpower, volunteers, and passion, he says. Aside from just collecting a massive amount of signatures in a small amount of time, the signatures are scrutinized when all is said and done.

After the failed zoning referendum, Giller continuously looked for projects to throw himself into — and when he heard SOS Arizona was trying to refer the school voucher law to the ballot, he knew it was something he had to be a part of.

Since, he’s been an active volunteer for the political action committee, logging over 83 petitions in multiple counties over the course of the summer as one of the leading SOS Arizona volunteers.

“It’s a 24-hour-a-day, cancel-your-vacation experience,” he says.

His 18-year-old daughter got her education at Xavier College Preparatory school, a Catholic, all-female private high school in metro Phoenix. But Giller graduated from a Columbus, Ohio, public school and wants his daughter to live in a world where children have access to good education, whether they go to public or private school.

“Anyone you meet, there’s a good chance they were educated through the public school system,” Giller said. “[My daughter’s] going to be living and working with them in the world. We all are.”

He has been petitioning on the Arizona streets since May, and he’s developed something of a strategy.

He tries to be short, sweet, and cut to the chase. He only has the amount of time it takes someone to enter the library to reach people with his message, so he’ll start talking to his targets the second they’re within earshot.

“There are some people who are absolutely glad someone’s getting involved,” Giller says. “And then there are people who want to pick a fight, usually people who support charter schools. Some people are better than others.”

If people do sign, Tom will stoop over the table and get down to their level as they write, sometimes explaining what the law could mean and sometimes describing what it means to refer a law.

“I feel like a salesman sometimes,” Giller says.

With the likeness of an old mutt in a cage at the animal shelter watching as potential masters walk by heading straight for the puppies, Giller has perfected his puppy dog eyes and always eventually gets someone to come play with him. He says he usually picks up 12 to 15 signatures an hour, and his winning line is, “They’re taking money out of public schools!"

State Senator Debbie Lesko doesn’t agree with that message. The Peoria Republican who sponsored the school voucher bill says she’s a “huge proponent of all schools,” charter, private, or otherwise.

She says the voucher law will allow parents to send their child to any school, and opponents of her legislation, like Giller, are sending the wrong message.

“It’s misleading and disingenuous to say you’re stealing money from public schools to give to private schools,” Lesko told Phoenix New Times. “When critics say this is somehow going to destroy public education as we know it, I think it’s a ridiculous, over-the-top allegation. It’s utterly ridiculous. These people must think district schools are so terrible, all these parents are going to flock to district schools and pull their kids out of district schools and sign up for ESAs, while most public school parents are happy.”

Lesko has said if SOS Arizona gets the required number of signatures validated, she’ll consider repealing and replacing the law so there would be no law to refer to the November 2018 ballot. If that happened, she could ask her colleagues to pass a new, slightly varied voucher expansion law next legislative session, though she says she’s not making any moves until she knows if SOS Arizona collects the signatures it needs.

“All options are on the table,” she said.

If Lesko chooses to repeal and replace the law, SOS Arizona communications director Penich-Thacker said the group wouldn’t stop fighting the voucher law but may change its focus to getting elected officials in office who would hear their concerns.

With Arizona standing at number 48 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia when it comes to funding for elementary, middle, and high school students, according to 2015 Census Bureau data, SOS Arizona says the burden of losing even more money to the voucher program could be devastating.

Penich-Thacker said some schools districts have already come up with plans to cut art programs and shut the doors at certain schools, in extreme cases.

Penich-Thacker and Giller say they’ll fight hard until the end if it means killing legislation would take more money away from schools that serve a large majority of kids in the state.

On this Friday in July, Giller is starting to sweat through his blue-gray polo shirt.

After three hours of signature-gathering, Giller is hot and tired. He decides it's time to get creative.

As another woman passes, he calls out: “If you know Domino’s Pizza, we’re like them!” Giller says. “But instead of delivering pizza, we’re delivering democracy. And instead of to your house, it’s to a local library near you!”

She doesn't take the bait.

And as the clock ticks towards noon in Tempe, Giller knows time is running out on more than just the amount of time he can bear to stand in the sun.

With just over a week until the August 8 referendum deadline, things are getting serious for Save Our Schools.

As Giller gets only four out of 10 people to stop and sign his petition, his spirit seems to fade. While he tries to keep it light with Domino’s Pizza analogies and educational prattling, he knows a little too well that all of his hard work could still be squashed. His hours in the sun could be for nothing.

And while the easiest thing to do might be pack up his table, clipboards, and miniature flag and call it a wash, Giller thinks what he’s fighting for is worth the time. It’s worth the risk.

“Public education is just too important,” he says. “Some people ignore us, but when people understand what we’re doing, they’re really grateful. It makes it feel a lot better. Someone might pass by and thank us because they love adding something to the list of good things they did that day.”

Giller targets a woman carrying a thick book with his tired spiel about public schools.

“I’ve already signed it,” the woman calls over her shoulder. Then she slows.

“Thank you for being out here doing this in this heat, though,” she says.

Giller perks up.

“Of course,” hollers after her. “And thank you for signing. That’s what we’re here for — democracy delivered to a local library near you!”


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