In a massive win for families, the last obstacle to universal school choice in Arizona has fallen.
Earlier this summer, Governor Doug Ducey signed legislation expanding eligibility for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to all K–12 students. Under the legislation, widely hailed as the gold standard for education choice, all Arizona families would be eligible to receive $7,000 per student to pay for private-school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online courses, special-needs therapy, and more.
Naturally, a union-backed group that opposes school choice, Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS), attempted to put the ESA expansion to a vote in a ballot referendum, thereby halting the law’s implementation pending the outcome of the referendum effort.
SOS needed to gather about 119,000 signatures to secure its ballot referendum. In 2018, it successfully gathered 111,000 signatures to clear the 75,000-signature threshold for referring a similar measure to the ballot. Two weeks ago, it declared victory, claiming that it had submitted 141,714 signatures for the ESA-expansion referendum.
But on Friday, the secretary of state’s office certified that SOS had gathered only 86,640 signatures. Not only did the group fail to meet the signature threshold, but it also gathered significantly fewer signatures than it did four years ago.
The surprising upset has left Arizona pundits and politicos asking: What happened?
The short answer: Parents beat the unions.
By all accounts, SOS should have exceeded its 2018 performance. Last time around, the organization was building itself up while also running the referendum campaign—the equivalent of building an airplane while flying it. This time, it had a fleet of airplanes from the get-go.
Relative to 2018, this time SOS had significantly more funding, more paid staff, longer lists of volunteers, and much more experience running a referendum campaign. It should have outperformed its 2018 signature numbers by a country mile.
But one other factor proved more decisive than all of SOS’s additional resources: parent power.
In the wake of the COVID pandemic’s unnecessarily long school shutdowns with their unsatisfactory “distance learning,” and amid concerns over radical politics in classrooms, parents have become much more supportive of educational-choice programs such as ESA. A RealClear Opinion poll in June found that 72 percent of Americans support educational choice, up eight percentage points from 2020. Their support was the impetus for expanding ESA eligibility to all families.
Parents have also become much more engaged with the politics of education. When they saw that special interests were attempting to thwart the ESA expansion, they took action.
Under the banner “Decline to Sign,” Arizona parents mobilized to inform voters about the benefits of educational choice and persuade them not to sign the SOS petitions.
“If SOS showed up [somewhere] to gather signatures, there was a Decline to Sign parent volunteer also there,” said Grant Botma, a father of three from Gilbert, Ariz. “The energy and effort that these pro-ESA parents put forth helped properly educate our community to limit SOS’s petition signatures.”
The Decline to Sign movement made it exceedingly difficult for SOS to gather signatures. When voters were presented with both sides of the argument, they became much less likely to sign the SOS petition than they were four years ago.
In the process, the parent protesters revealed the teachers’ unions and their allies to be paper tigers, thereby paving the way for further educational-choice expansions in other states.
If anything, the referendum attempt attracted more parents to ESAs. Christine Emmanuel, a mother of four ESA students from Wittmann, Ariz., 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.”
In just the last two months, the families of more than 12,000 children have applied for an ESA, more than doubling the number of ESA students last year. So many families tried to apply after news broke that the ESA expansion was going into effect on Friday that the Arizona Department of Education’s website crashed, prompting an extension of the application deadline until October 15.
Other states should follow Arizona’s lead by expanding educational choice to all children. Although special interests will try to push back, Arizona’s example shows that parents want what’s best for their kids and are willing to fight for it.
Politicians and special interests who stand in their way do so at their own peril.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review