School Choice Opponents Concede Defeat Just Days After Declaring Victory

School Choice Opponents Concede Defeat Just Days After Declaring Victory

Arizona school choice

School choice opponents in Arizona just tried to block the state’s newly passed school choice expansion to all Arizona children. Fortunately, parents have defeated them. (Photo: SDI Productions/Getty Images)

On Friday, opponents of education choice in Arizona declared a “historic victory.”

But by Monday, they were conceding defeat.

They had sought to gather enough signatures to block Arizona’s newly passed massive expansionof education choice and put it on the ballot for voters to decide. But apparently, the voters weren’t interested in what opponents were selling.

“I think we will end up short, yes,” said Beth Lewis, the executive director of the anti-school choice group Save Our Schools Arizona. Their defeat is a testament to the power of parents who mobilized to defend the education choice policy.

Earlier this summer, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a bill sponsored by Arizona House Republican Majority Leader Ben Toma to expand eligibility for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account policy to all 1.1 million of the state’s K-12 students.

Arizona’s ESA policy is now the gold standard of education choice. Arizona ranks first in the nationfor education choice in The Heritage Foundation’s inaugural Education Freedom Report Card and second for education freedom overall (including in rankings of education choice, academic transparency, regulatory freedom, and return on investment for education spending), behind only Florida.

With an ESA, families receive about $7,000 per student—slightly more than the median elementary school tuition in Arizona—to use for educational expenses such as private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online courses, special-needs therapy, and more. Students with special needs can receive additional funding.

On Friday, Save Our Schools Arizona claimed it had gathered 141,714 signatures, significantly more than the 118,823 valid signatures it needed to put the ESA expansion on the 2024 ballot.

Even then, its victory rang hollow. As I noted on Friday:

‘Valid’ is the key word. Signatures may be invalid for a variety of reasons—for example, if the signer isn’t registered to vote in Arizona, the signature or address doesn’t match what’s on file, and so on.

According to Ballotpedia, the average signature validity rate of ballot initiative petitions such as this one is 75.3%. Even with an 80% validity rate, Save Our Schools would need about 150,000 signatures to meet the threshold.

With about 142,000 signatures, Save Our Schools Arizona would need an 84% validity rate.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that it turned in far fewer than the number it initially claimed. Although Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has not yet released the official number of signatures submitted, the Arizona Mirrorexplained why the information released thus far shows it is practically impossible that Save Our Schools cleared the signature threshold:

According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office, the group filed 8,175 petition sheets. That means the group would have needed about 17.3 signatures per petition sheet to hit the number of signatures claimed — an impossibility, as there are only 15 lines per sheet.

And in order to meet the 118,823 valid signatures required to successfully block the law from going into effect to put it on the 2024 ballot, Save Our Schools Arizona needs more than 14.5 signatures on every sheet. That essentially means every sheet needs to be full for the measure to succeed.

A cursory review of the petition sheets that the Secretary of State’s Office digitized as part of its initial evaluation process shows very few sheets have all 15 lines full.

In short: It’s all over.

After a review of the digitized petition sheets, the Goldwater Institute and Center for Arizona Policy tallied that Save Our Schools Arizona submitted only 88,866 signatures. That’s not only far fewer signatures than they needed this year, it’s also far fewer than the roughly 111,000 signatures gathered for a similar referendum in 2018.

“We just sometimes get things wrong,” concededLewis.

“Arizona families have rejected special interests’ attempts to take away their ability to choose the education that best meets their child’s unique needs,” said Victor Riches, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute. “Families deserve the right to choose the best education option for their children, regardless of ZIP code, and now, they’ll once again be able to exercise that right by applying for ESAs.”

What does all this mean? And what happens next? Here are three key takeaways:

1) All Arizona students will soon have access to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

Since the Arizona Department of Education began accepting ESA applications under the recently expanded eligibility on Aug. 16, it received more than 10,000 applications from families whose children qualified under the new guidelines. That means the number of ESA students will nearly double since the last academic year, when 11,775 Arizona students received an ESA.

But those families are in limbo as the ESA expansion is still on hold pending the official results of the referendum attempt.

The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office has 20 days to review the Save Our Schools Arizona petitions. If it failed to clear the signature threshold, then the ESA expansion will go into effect immediately.

But as Arizona Senate President Karen Fann noted today, the signature verification process should not take nearly that long, especially since the Secretary of State’s Office “relies on signature-review software to automate petition signature counting.”

The secretary of state should release the results with all deliberate speed so that Arizona families can start getting access to the ESAs that they need to provide their children with the education that best fits their individual learning needs.

At a rally this afternoon in front of Hobbs’ office, Ducey called on her to expedite the signature verification process, eliciting cheers from the scores of protesters in attendance.

2) Parents want education choice.

By all accounts, Save Our Schools Arizona should have garnered more signatures this year than it did four years ago. This time around, it had more experience, a larger network, and a bigger target (universal eligibility) than before. Yet is seems it significantly underperformed relative to 2018. Why?

In a word: parents.

In the wake of prolonged school shutdowns, “Zoom school,” and concerns over politicized classrooms, public support for education choicehas reached all-time highs, especially among parents.

A Morning Consult poll released last month found that 66% of Arizonans and 75% of parents of school-age children support Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. If given the choice, 58% of Arizona parents said they would like their child to attend a school of choice, including a private school (31%), a charter school (17%), or homeschool (10%).

The assault on education choice by Save Our Schools Arizona awakened a sleeping giant. Under the banner “Decline to Sign,” Arizona parents mobilized to inform voters about education choice and thwart the attempt to block the ESA expansion.

“If [Save Our Schools] showed up to gather signatures, there was a Decline to Sign parent volunteer also there,” said Grant Botma, a father of three from Gilbert, Arizona. “The energy and effort that these pro-ESA parents put forth helped properly educate our community to limit SOS petition signatures.”

When presented with both sides, voters were much less likely to sign a petition than they were four years ago. Not only that, but the protesters often piqued the voters’ interest in exercising education choice themselves.

Christine Emmanuel, a mother of four ESA students from Wittmann, Arizona, said she spoke to countless voters about the referendum and “about what the ESA can do for their children.” When she was done speaking with them, she said, “The only signing they wanted to do was to sign up for an Empowerment Scholarship Account.”

3) Save Our Schools Arizona has a credibility crisis.

If the secretary of state confirms the Goldwater/Center for Arizona Policy petition count and it is confirmed that Save Our Schools turned in about 50,000 signatures fewer than it claimed, its credibility will take a major hit.

“We did not intentionally fluff any of the numbers,” Lewis told the Arizona Mirror. “There’s a lot of room for human error.”

But it’s hard to square that claim with the facts.

Save Our Schools initially asserted that it had turned in 141,714 signatures—a very precise figure, down to the ones’ unit. But on Monday, it reversed course, claiming that “our counts were necessarily estimates.”

But as noted by Christine Sawhill Accurso, a leader of the Decline to Sign effort, a 50,000-signature shortfall is not just a “rounding error.”

It’s understandable if estimates are off by 5% or even 10%, but the Save Our Schools “estimates” were off by about 56%, suggesting gross error at best, malfeasance at worst.

And that’s not all. According to the secretary of state, Save Our Schools Arizona initially claimedthat it had turned in 10,200 petition sheets, but the office later confirmed that only 8,175 sheets had actually been turned in.

How were its reported submissions off by more than 2,000 sheets? Was it that inept or did ity lie to the secretary of state and the general public? And if the latter, didn’t it realize that the truth would very quickly come out?

No doubt Save Our School Arizona’s many volunteers, supporters, and donors are asking those very questions right now. Although Lewis has pledged to try another ballot initiative to curb education choice next year, it’s unlikely that there will be much appetite among donors and grassroots activists to support her group again.

Meanwhile, families seeking to provide their children with an education that best fits their learning needs are breathing a sigh of relief.

Have an opinion about this article? To sound off, please email letters@DailySignal.com, and we’ll consider publishing your edited remarks in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Remember to include the URL or headline of the article plus your name and town and/or state.

Apparent Victory Rings Hollow for Group Opposing School Choice

One of the greatest hurdles for Arizona’s opponents of school choice is voter support, which has reached all-time highs in the wake of prolonged school shutdowns and concerns over politicized classrooms. (Photo illustration: Image Source/Getty Images)

The effort to block a massive expansion of education choice in Arizona appears to be running out of steam.

Beth Lewis, executive director of the anti-school choice group Save Our Schools Arizona, or SOS, put on her best game face Friday afternoon as she announced that her group has gathered enough signatures to put the recent expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accountprogram on the ballot for voters to decide.

But it wasn’t hard to detect Lewis’ disappointment.

Earlier this summer, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed a bill sponsored by Arizona House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, to expand eligibility for the state’s ESA policy to all 1.1 million of the state’s K-12 students.

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That would mean all families could receive about $7,000 to use for educational expenses such as private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online courses, special-needs therapy, and more.

The program is widely hailed as the gold standard of education choice, cementing Arizona’s first-place ranking for education choice in The Heritage Foundation’s new Education Freedom Report Card. Arizona placed second nationwide for education freedom overall (including rankings of education choice, academic transparency, regulatory freedom, and return), behind only Florida.

Lewis’ group acted quickly to contest the ESA expansion. Under Arizona state law, voters may refer recently enacted legislation to the ballot for voter approval if they gather the signatures of registered Arizona voters equal to at least 5% of all votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

In 2018, Save Our Schools Arizona ran a similar referendum campaign, in which it gathered about 111,000 signatures—comfortably exceeding the threshold of about 75,000 valid voter signatures. This year, sending the issue to referendum required about 119,000 valid signatures.

“Valid” is the key word. Signatures may be invalid for a variety of reasons—for example, if the signer isn’t registered to vote in Arizona, the signature or address doesn’t match what’s on file, and so on.

According to Ballotpedia, the average signature validity rate of ballot initiative petitions such as this one is 75.3%. Even with an 80% validity rate, Save Our Schools would need about 150,000 signatures to meet the threshold.

But SOS turned in only about 142,000 signatures Friday afternoon. Unless the group achieved an unusually high validity rate—84%—it is likely that it has failed to obtain enough valid signatures.

It appears that Save Our Schools Arizona already sees the writing on the wall. Earlier this week, Lewis offered a litany of excuses to the left-wing media outlet Salon, complaining about the higher signature threshold relative to 2018, the 80-day window to collect signatures, and likely scrutiny from the legal system.

But Lewis reserved her greatest ire for the efforts of school choice groups such as the Goldwater Institute and the American Federation for Children, to protect the expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Salon reported:

‘They’re already signaling massive legal battles,’ said SOS Arizona director Beth Lewis, who said that petitions are frequently challenged over not just issues like duplicate signatures but also incomplete addresses for signees and smudged notary markings.

Lewis appeared especially aggravated by the pro-ESA grassroots activists who urged voters to decline to sign her group’s petitions. According to Salon, she accused these activists (without evidence) of being backed by the Goldwater Institute and American Federation for Children:

In the meantime, the final weeks of petition gathering have turned hostile, as groups backed by the Goldwater Institute and AFC have launched a massive ‘Decline to Sign’ campaign, holding protests at petition gathering spots, urging supporters to call businesses near petition sites to complain that ‘this is hurting our children’s education’ and videotaping both petition circulators and voters who sign, posting clips of those interactions online. In this atmosphere, petition volunteers say they’ve been surrounded, harassed and followed for blocks on end, while pro-ESA protesters say they’ve been insulted or sworn at by referendum supporters.

While Lewis said there wasn’t ‘any organized opposition’ to the [2018] petition process … this year, ‘It’s like a war zone at some of these events.’

The “Decline to Sign” protesters, who want to protect the ESA program, see it differently.

“Hundreds of volunteer parents from all different backgrounds have come together to peacefully hold signs and talk to voters about the ESA program,” said Taylor Hoffman, a mother of two from Gilbert, Arizona, including one child with special needs.

Taylor described how she and fellow protesters have had great success in persuading voters not to sign the Save Our Schools petitions. In one case, they approached a father who was considering signing.

“We brought up the fact that Save Our Schools has a history of fighting against multiple school choice laws in Arizona, including the original ESA program that helps special needs students,” Taylor said. “The dad decided not to sign and walked away.”

One of the greatest hurdles for Save Our Schools Arizona is voter support for education choice, which has reached all-time highs in the wake of prolonged school shutdowns, Zoom school, and concerns over politicized classrooms.

A Morning Consult poll released in August found that 66% of Arizonans and 75% of parents of school-age children said they support Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Meanwhile, only a third of voters said they believe that their local district schools are on the “right track.”

Save Our Schools’ assault on education choice at a time when parents need it most may have awakened a sleeping giant and filled it with a terrible resolve.

“The grassroots movement of Decline to Sign not only slowed down SOS signature gatherers, but it created a community of like-minded folks that genuinely care about what is best for kids,” said Grant Botma, a father of three from Gilbert, Arizona. “No politics. No hidden agenda. Just parents fighting for what is best for their kids and kids in the community.”

The coming weeks certainly will see signature challenges and likely will see litigation. One thing is for certain: Arizona parents will be watching.

Have an opinion about this article? To sound off, please email letters@DailySignal.com and we’ll consider publishing your edited remarks in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Remember to include the url or headline of the article plus your name and town and/or state.

Milton Friedman’s film series “Free to Choose” Episode on Education part 3. It was Friedman’s voucher plan that was put into practice in Sweden in 1993.

I am sitting in the St. Louis airport waiting to get on my plane to Orlando on a business trip. Can you imagine, I booked a trip with Southwest Airlines because they have always done such a great job and they sent me from Little Rock to Florida by way of St. Louis.

Liberals  are so critical of the  Little Rock public school system, but they don’t want to offer other choices with vouchers which would cause competition. However, both the public schools and other schools would become more efficient if there were vouchers. That is exactly what has happened in Sweden.

Max Brantley is always critical of charter schools, but I personally prefer to look at the option of a school system that is funded by vouchers.

I read an excellent article called “School Choice in Sweden: An Interview with Thomas Idergard of Timbro,” (March 8, 2010) by Dan Lips and I wanted to share some of his answers with you below:

DL: What has Sweden’s experience been with the universal vouchers program?
TI: People really choose! Before the reform, less than 1 percent of all pupils in compulsory education (and around the same amount for students in upper secondary schools) were enrolled in private schools. Today, 10 percent of the pupils in compulsory education and 20 percent of students in upper secondary education choose independent schools. In certain regions of the country, almost half of all pupils and students are enrolled in independent schools.
The independent schools have gone from being an odd phenomenon in certain cities to an obvious and natural part of the Swedish education system. From a business point of view, the independent schools are developing into what can be considered as a real industry, and they are promoting real innovation.
The small independent schools have often challenged the public schools and forced them to improve. But the large chain companies, which have an estimated one-fourth to one-fifth of all independent school students, have proven to be an important force for innovative progress, regarding both educational methods and, important enough, ways to measure, compare, maintain, and improve results.
This also explains why independent schools, on an average, prove to have a smaller per pupil cost than public schools. Since 2004, the inflation-adjusted cost increase per pupil has been smaller for independent schools than that for the whole Swedish education system. And independent schools are not allowed to choose their students. Detailed analysis of cost items shows that independent schools spend a higher share of their revenues on education and teaching materials and are more efficient in managing other costs.
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