Ducey heralds first-in-nation voucher law as 'gold standard' as opponents work to put it before voters

Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic

Every schoolchild in Arizona can get public money to pay for whatever form of education their parents choose under a bill that Gov. Doug Ducey celebrated Tuesday as the nation's first universal voucher law.

"Arizona is the gold standard for educational freedom," Ducey said to the cheers of Republican lawmakers, school-choice advocates and the assembled student body of Phoenix Christian Preparatory, a private school.

The new law, which is the target of a voter referendum, expands the Empowerment Scholarship Account program to all Arizona students. It is expected to offer about $7,000 per student that can be used in a variety of ways: for private school tuition, private tutors or home schooling, among other things.

One speaker likened Ducey to Abraham Lincoln, saying the legislation will end "educational slavery." Proponents hailed the bill as groundbreaking policy that should be replicated nationwide.

"This is the biggest school-choice victory not just in Arizona, but in U.S. history," said Corey DeAngelis, chief lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, which is funded by Betsy DeVos, the former U.S. education secretary and a school-choice champion.

DeAngelis traveled from Washington, D.C., to mark the occasion, saying Arizona will serve as a national model. Tuesday's event was ceremonial; Ducey signed the bill into law last month.

But the fate of the program is unclear: It is the subject of a citizen referendum run by public-school advocates. They want to block the law from taking effect next month and send it to the November 2024 ballot, for voters to decide. The organizers need to collect 118,823 valid voter signatures by Sept. 24 to put the law on hold.

Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools, said the month-old effort is getting a good response from voters, who she said are "livid" over the issue. There are 15,000 referendum petitions in the field now, she said, with a good response, despite pushback from a parent coalition that is urging people to not sign the petition.

The counter movement from voucher supporters is called Decline to Sign, with financial assistance provided by the American Federation for Children and the local Goldwater Institute.

Voucher law a decade in the making 

Tuesday's celebration put the spotlight on a key Ducey priority: expanding school choice. It comes in the closing months of his two terms as governor.

"Over the last eight years — and it has taken all of eight years — we have taken action to ensure that more kids have this opportunity by positioning Arizona as a national leader in school choice," he said. 

Arizona lawmakers created the ESA program 10 years ago, targeting it at special-needs children. It has grown incrementally ever since.

Ducey praised the work that Phoenix Christian has done with a diverse student body, and said every Arizona child deserves the same opportunity as at the central Phoenix school.

Nearly all of the tuition paid by students at the school is from state tax dollars, either through scholarships from the state's Student Tuition Organization program or the existing voucher program —  two key pillars of Arizona's school choice framework.

State Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, the sponsor of the universal voucher bill, called the legislation a "game changer" for parents and children.

"If we can do it in Arizona, we can do it in most other states," Toma said.

House Bill 2853 passed with only Republican votes; Democrats were unified in opposition.

School choice advocates praise effort 

Ducey shared the podium with school choice advocates, saying the bill would not have become law without building coalitions from outside the state Capitol. Those coalitions crossed political party and racial lines, and included supporters who opt to send their children to public schools.

Drew Anderson, who compared Ducey to Lincoln because of the governor's support of vouchers, predicted universal vouchers will change the state's demographics by giving students of color more educational opportunities. Anderson, the pastor of the First Watch Ministries and Legacy Christian Center, said he could see the day two decades from now when a young Black doctor would thank Ducey for opening up more school choice.

Jenny Clark, founder of Love Your School, said there's a message in the new policy: "I want every family to know, 'You are not stuck,'" she said. The organization supports school choice and provides advice to parents on finding the best educational fit for their child. 

DeAnglis, of the American Federation for Children, led the audience in a call-and-response, as he chanted "Arizona will now fund students" and the crowd responded with "Not systems." That's the slogan used to promote school choice policies.

To sign or not to sign the referendum

Meanwhile, the teacher-led Save Our Schools is circulating petitions to block the law from taking effect next month.

It's not the first time the group has fought voucher expansion: Four years ago, it referred a similar effort to the ballot, where voters rejected it by a 2-to-1 margin.

Lewis, who leads that group, said signature collection is going faster than previous drives.

"People are livid about this," she said of the universal voucher program. Voters are mad that something they turned down four years ago has popped back up again, she said.

But voucher supporters aren't waiting for a court fight over petition signatures, as they have in past years. Instead, they have organized a campaign to discourage people from signing the referendum.

The Decline to Sign drive is led by a parent coalition that is urging voters to make sure they understand what a signature on the Save Our Schools petition would do, said Christine Sawhill Accurso, who helped organize the effort.

"We give them (voters) a little palm card and tell them (voters) not to sign until you know what you're signing," she said. 

The card, paid for by the Goldwater Institute, disputes the charge that universal vouchers would drain money from public schools.

"The ESA program simply ensures that each student's funding follows the student, just like it already does each time a student leaves a public school for a different public school using the state's open enrollment option," the card states.

Critics have said the policy amounts to a death by a thousand cuts, because as a public school loses money from any student who uses a voucher, the school still has to cover its operating costs, from utilities to salaries to building repair.

Inappropriate pressure campaign?

Leda Devlieger, a volunteer with Save Our Schools, said she's had some intrusive encounters with Decline to Sign proponents while gathering petition signatures. 

At a recent event at the Gilbert Farmers Market, voucher supporters surrounded a woman who was signing a petition.

"They literally were at our table and told her to stop signing," Devlieger said. "Which made a lot of people uncomfortable."

She said the businesses that have allowed Save Our Schools to circulate petitions have been called by voucher supporters, asking them to stop their support.

Sawhill Accurso said she hasn't heard of these complaints, and said their volunteers are trained to keep a 4-foot distance while still making their case.

In any event, Devlieger said, the actions haven't deterred voters.

She said nearly two dozen people stopped into the Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe last weekend to sign the referendum petition. when they saw the Decline to Sign supporters out on the curb.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.