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 expansion of 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 nation for 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 Mirror explained 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,” conceded Lewis.
“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 choice has 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 claimed that 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.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal