New Arizona school voucher law on hold for now

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PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona's ambitious expansion of its school voucher program was officially put on hold Tuesday after opponents filed enough signatures to at least temporarily block the new law.

The filing of more than 111,000 signatures kicks off a weekslong verification process where state and county officials will determine if slightly more than 75,000 valid signatures were collected. If they are certified, the law remains blocked until the November 2018 general election under an Arizona law allowing voters to weigh in on laws passed by the Legislature.

"The supporters of voucher expansion will tell you that this is about choice," said Beth Lewis, chair of Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots group that collected the signatures. ""But so far the only choice that (Senate Bill) 1431 respects is that of out-of-state dark money groups that created it. What about the choice of 111,540 Arizona voters who want to have their say."

Lewis pointed out that 95 percent of the state's students attend public schools, either traditional or charters. She said the state woefully underfunds those schools.

The passage of the universal voucher program was a top priority of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and hailed by the Trump administration and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Ducey's office issued a statement saying vouchers have helped thousands of families, many with special needs, find an education that works best for their children.

"We expanded the program so that even more families could take advantage of its benefits. It is unfortunate that there are some who want to halt its success. Every child should have every avenue available to them to attend the school best fit to their needs," the statement said.

Arizona first passed a voucher program, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, for disabled students in 2011. It now covers a third of all students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Indian reservations, foster children and children of military members. Despite those changes, only about 3,500 students now use it to pay for private school tuition, and more than half are disabled.

The new expansion would go into effect for the fall semester if opponents fall short during the signature validation process. It expands eligibility to all students by 2022, but it caps enrollment at about 30,000.

The anti-voucher group mainly used volunteers to collect the signatures in 90 days, a daunting task in Arizona's scorching summer weather. The filings kick off a weekslong verification process where state and county officials will determine if slightly more than 75,000 valid signatures were collected.

Legal challenges to the signatures are expected, and an attorney for groups backing voucher expansion and two top Arizona operatives of the pro-school choice group American Federation for Children monitored the action as the signatures were dropped off to the Secretary of State's office.

About a hundred teachers and others opposed to vouchers gathered at the Capitol to drop off the signatures and watched as Lewis addresses the media.

Also on hand were families who would have received school vouchers under the expanded program.

One of them, Claudia Gamez, said she planned to send her four children to Catholic school this fall that she could not otherwise afford. She was upset with those opposed to the program, saying they were thinking in a selfish way.

"There are families here waiting for ESAs, to have the opportunity to have a change in their lives for their children," Gamez said through a translator. "It's not just the education, but its strengthening the faith and their principles."

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