Arizona’s ESA Program Expansion: Who’s Behind the Signature Challenge and What’s Next
Learn everything you need to know about who’s challenging Arizona’s ESA program, the latest developments with petition signatures and what educational choice advocates can do next.
In this installment of EdChoice Chats, our President and CEO Robert Enlow taps Arizona resident and EdChoice Director of Policy Jason Bedrick for a rundown of what’s going on in Arizona right now. Arizona has been a pioneer state in the school choice movement in many ways, and this year they expanded their education savings account (ESA) program to nearly every K–12 student. That expansion is now under threat. Listen to find out who’s behind it, why they’re attacking the program, the latest developments and what advocates of this incredible program are doing to fight back.
Our Chat Transcribed
Robert Enlow: Hi, and welcome to the next installment of EdChoice Chats. I’m Robert Enlow, President and CEO of EdChoice, and I’m here today with Jason Bedrick, our director of policy and resident Arizona expert. Welcome, Jason.
Jason Bedrick: Thank you for having me.
Robert Enlow: First, let’s talk about Arizona in general. Arizona has been an amazing state for school choice over many years. Talk about the environment that’s happened in Arizona since the early, mid ’90s.
Jason Bedrick: Sure. In 1997, Arizona became the first state to adopt a tax-credit scholarship program, where individual and corporate donors were able to make donations to scholarship organizations and get dollar-for-dollar tax credits in return. Then, those scholarship organizations helped low- and middle-income families attend the school of their choice. Arizona for a long time has been a pioneer in the educational choice movement.
Robert Enlow: Arizona has pioneered the tax credit program, they’ve pioneered the charter school movement in many ways, and now they’ve pioneered this thing called ESAs or education savings accounts. Give us a little background on the ESA program and what they expanded it to this year. How did it expand?
Jason Bedrick: Sure. In 2011, Arizona became the first state to adopt an education savings account. That means that the state gives a percentage of what they would’ve spent on a child at a district school, instead they deposit that into an account, about 90 percent into an account that family can use for a wide variety of educational expenditures. Private school tuition, but also things like tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curriculum, online learning, educational therapy, and so on. Really, it’s moving from school choice to educational choice and empowering families to select a wide variety of educational products and services. Originally, the program was limited only to students with special needs.
Then over the course of a few years, they included a variety of other different categories of students, foster students that were adopted through the state system, children of active-duty members of the military or whose parents were killed in the line of duty, students who were zoned to attend a D or F letter grade school, if their school district was not a high-performing district. Then this year, they decided that they were going to expand it so that all children that were either entering kindergarten or who were switching out of a district or charter school could have access to these programs no matter what their family’s income or no matter what their disability status or whatnot, so almost a universal program.
Robert Enlow: This amazing state of Arizona has gone from some of the first charter schools to the first tax credit program to the first of its kind ESA program. This ESA program is now really under threat and this expansion is potentially not going to happen. Tell us what’s going on there and why it’s so important for EdChoice supporters to take notice.
Jason Bedrick: Opponents of the program decided that they would launch a ballot initiative, but Arizona has a law that says anybody can, if they get a certain number of signatures, in this case about 75,000 signatures, that they can halt the implementation of any law that was passed. They got it up in 90 days from when the law is signed into law to do this. If the get the requisite number of signatures, it would then go on the ballot at the next election cycle. That would be the fall of 2018. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying to repeal the expansion of the law. If they were successful, it would mean that the program would still exist, but it would only exist for those limited number of categories of students that were already eligible at the beginning of this year.
It would not be expanded to all of the students that would be looking for greater school choice options.
Robert Enlow: Seventy-five thousand, 77,000 signatures can stop a program that can serve every Arizonan family potentially. That’s something very interesting to hear and certainly one of the things our supporters should be aware of because this could potentially happen. Now, who’s leading that opposition movement and what do you think their motivation is for halting this expansion?
Jason Bedrick: It’s a group of district school activists that want to essentially preserve the status quo. They don’t want more competition for the existing system. In particular, who benefits the most? It’s low income families that don’t have other choices. They’re trying to keep a captive audience from getting alternatives, and that’s a real shame.
Robert Enlow: Is there a reason they’ve picked this ballot initiative way to attack this program instead of through the courts or any other way?
Jason Bedrick: Yeah. I think they were going to try anything possible to block it, and that was just one of many tools that they had. They had a limited amount of time to do it, so they struck while the iron was hot. I don’t expect a lawsuit against the program itself because they’ve already filed a lawsuit. Several years ago in 2011 when the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account Program, the ESA program, was first enacted, they tried to sue and block it in the courts, but they failed. The courts upheld the constitutionality of the program, and so that avenue is essentially closed off for them, and this is really all they have left.
Robert Enlow: The folks who oppose this have lost in the legislature and now they’ve lost in the courts, and they’re trying everything they can to stop parents choosing. That’s really unfortunate. Obviously, this is all unfolding as we speak, Jason. What are some of the latest developments and what do you think the outcome at the end of all this could be?
Jason Bedrick: Well, right now, they’re in the challenge phase, so they’re trying to validate the signatures. They turned in 111,000 signatures. It sounds like of course they have enough signatures, that’s 111 last I checked is more than 75, so they should have enough signatures. That’s not actually the case. They have to have 75,000 valid signatures. If somebody signs, but they’re not registered to vote, or they’re not a citizen, or they are registered, but they didn’t put all of their information, they didn’t put that … Could be they fake a signature or it could be that they didn’t put their home address. There could be issues with the notary, not signing their name properly. As a matter of fact, there are a few issues that are under legal review right now.
The Americans for Prosperity just filed two separate lawsuits. One of them because they actually have the wrong legislative session on every single ballot. I’m sorry, on every single petition. Now, the petitions are supposed to be reviewed under what’s known as strict scrutiny, which is to say that if there are any mercurial errors, then that petition would be thrown out. You have a situation where they’re trying to repeal a law that was passed in a particular legislative session, but the petition refers to a different legislative session. The courts may find that that’s just a typo, no big deal, or they may find that that’s actually a material error, and they would throw out all the petitions that have that error.
Another thing they’re challenging is that some of the signature gatherers—paid signature gatherers have to be registered with the state—it seems that some of them weren’t. They also cannot be convicted felons. It appears that some of them were, and so that’s being challenged. There are also a number of other irregularities that I expect to see some challenges, so with regards to those as well. For example, there was some collusion with some of the district schools. There was at least one email that was uncovered where an employee of a district school was colluding with some of the signature gatherers telling them when to show up at the school, offering to provide them payroll, public resources. Obviously, it is illegal to have the district schools, which are public entities, be involved in any way in electioneering.
There have been a number of irregularities that we expect to see challenges. Like Yogi Berra said “It’s impossible to make predictions, especially about the future.” I expect that it’s going to be very close, but I think that there’s a lot of hope for school choice supporters that this might be overturned. Because if they succeed, then it would go to the ballots and hopefully we would win there. It means at the very least, even if we won, it would delay the implementation of the program for another year and these kids can’t wait. This has already passed the legislature. The people have spoken through their elected representatives, and I think that opponents are just trying to stall the program. And that’s very unfortunate for the kids whose lives really could be changed by going to a school that works best for them now instead of having to wait.
Robert Enlow: The recap, Jason, it’s an incredible story, and I really appreciate hearing all the recap, but also I’m sure our listeners do. What is EdChoice doing to protect the rights of these families, and what could other advocates do to get involved?
Jason Bedrick: Well, we’re on the ground in the state. I live here in Arizona and we’re working awfully hard to make sure that parents know what their options are currently and what’s at stake in this fight and making the case for educational choice and educational freedom. What other advocates can do is … the most important thing to that: The public needs to hear their voices. They need to hear why they support educational choice, what it means to them and their children and their family, so they should do everything they can to volunteer with other organizations that are fighting this to contact their legislators, contact the media, let them know that they’re there. We shouldn’t always hear from the other side. We should hear from the people whose educations are at stake.
Robert Enlow: You know that’s right. That’s all about putting parents first and that’s what EdChoice is all about, making sure parents have the freedom to choose. I’d like to thank you all for listening and ask you all to please subscribe if you’d like to hear more EdChoice Chats. Until the next time, thank you very much and be well.