ARIZONA

School vouchers with 3 months of payments will go to Arizona parents who apply by deadline

Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic

Parents anxious they'll miss out on three months of taxpayer-funded payments for a private school voucher will get their money retroactively if an anti-voucher referendum is struck down, the Arizona Department of Education said.

But they'll have to act soon if they haven't already applied for the payments.

The guidance came as parents who want to take part in the state's expanded voucher program gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday to urge a faster review of the anti-voucher petitions.

The petitions, submitted Friday by Save Our Schools, appear to fall short of the needed number of signatures required to block the program's wholesale expansion, according to reviews done by outside groups. Even the referendum drive's organizers concede they missed the goal.

The official determination is made by the Arizona Secretary of State's Office, however, and protesters Wednesday urged that office's leader, Katie Hobbs, to hurry up. They got an assist from Gov. Doug Ducey, who signed the universal voucher bill into law this summer. He also called on Hobbs to expedite the review process.

Katie Hobbs speaks about a Pima County judge's ruling that Arizona would return to banning abortions in most circumstances on Sept. 24, 2022.

The parents were concerned that if the review is not done by Friday, which is the end of the state's first budget quarter, people who have applied to the state's Empowerment Scholarship Account program would not get the money for private school tuition, homeschooling, tutoring or other educational needs.

"If you don't announce this referendum's failed attempt by then (Friday), you will be harming our children's future," Christine Accurso wrote to Hobbs in a letter hand delivered to the secretary's office. Accurso calls herself an "ESA parent" and has worked to encourage lawmakers to pass the universal expansion and to push back against the referendum drive.

More on vouchers:Save Our Schools files anti-voucher petitions at Arizona Capitol in Phoenix

However, Richie Taylor of the state education department said the money will be available if and when there is an official determination on the referendum's fate. As long as parents have applied for the ESA program by Friday, they will get first quarter funding retroactively — if the ESA law is in effect, he said.

Thus far, 12,100 parents have applied for the universal ESA program, Taylor said.

Office says it must follow process

Hobbs' office said they have a strict process to follow and can't shortcut it.

"Once we've accepted the petitions, we have an obligation to complete the process," C. Murphy Hebert, Hobbs' communications manager, said. That takes time and the law allows up to 20 business days, although indications are the effort will finish well before then.

The review requires a check of whether the forms are notarized, if the purpose of the referendum is correctly stated, and if petition sheets have the correct serial number, among other detailed steps.

Only after that, according to the office's Initiative and Referendum Guide, does counting happen.

Wednesday's protest centers on the fact that outside reviews of the publicly available petition sheets showed the referendum fell as many as 30,000 signatures short of the 118,843 valid voter signatures needed, and nearly 53,000 shy of the 141,714 Save Our Schools claimed to have gathered.

In a statement, Hobbs chided those who suggested she was playing politics by not reviewing the petitions as quickly as they would like.

"It is disappointing that some elected leaders are intentionally misrepresenting this process to parents to create confusion and deliberately sow discord," her statement read.

She accompanied it with a Twitter thread, written last week, to explain the review process to the public. 

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