School vouchers up to public vote

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PHOENIX – Foes of giving out more vouchers of tax dollars to let kids go to private and parochial schools filed petitions Tuesday with more than 111,000 signatures to force the issue to a public vote.

The group, Save Our Schools, contends that SB 1431 will drain dollars from an already underfunded public school system.

“Class sizes have swelled to almost 40 children per teacher,” said Beth Lewis, a fifth grade teacher in the Tempe Elementary School District.

“Many schools no longer have tutoring, school nurses, summer school or field trips,” she said at a press conference after the petitions were delivered to the secretary of state’s office. “What more can be cut?”

But Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, the prime mover behind expanded vouchers, said giving parents vouchers so they have more choices of where to send their children to school does not harm the public schools they leave. And she cited figures from legislative budget analysts who said the vouchers cost less than state aid to public schools, with the legislation actually saving state dollars.

Lewis said even assuming there are fewer children in public schools they’re still stuck with the fixed overhead costs of administration, buses and even maintaining the facilities.

Kingman Progressive Alliance co-organizer Sarah Ferry and District 1 Mohave County Democrats Chairwoman Susie Gestrine took the lead on Mohave County participation in the movement.

As part of the non-partisan effort, about 20 volunteers consisting of teachers, parents, and public advocates, either on their own or in groups around the community, collected signatures around the community at locations including the Mohave County Library, Splash Pad, and Kingman Farmers Market.

More than 1,000 signatures were collected between Kingman, Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City. Each petition form has room for 15 signatures.

“I got about four sheets at the farmers market,” Gestrine said.

Ferry’s band of volunteers racked them in.

“At one point we turned in 37 petitions,” Ferry said. “There was a good handful of petitions from Kingman.”

Responses to their efforts were hit and miss, but mostly positive.

“I had a lot of good responses. There was only a few people at the farmers market that grumbled,” said Gestrine. “People that had kids in the public schools knew how important it is to fund the public schools.”

Ferry, a parent of a public school student, is well aware of Republican and special interest groups pushing for voucher expansion without voter input.

“The majority of people were supportive of public school funding,” Ferry said. “Some people said they don’t support public schools and their excuse was that public schools aren’t doing a job.

“That reason is money keeps getting taken away from the schools rather than them being properly funded to begin with.”

The Arizona legislature is free to repeal SB 1431 and immediately reenact it, perhaps with only some minor changes, making the petition drive legally moot. And foes of vouchers, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, would have to start over again from scratch to demand a public vote on the new version.

Lawmakers have done exactly that before.

In 2013, opponents of HB 2305 gathered more than 144,000 signatures to force a referendum on a series of changes in election laws that opponents said were designed to depress voter turnout and place roadblocks in the path of those who want to propose their own laws, things like limiting who can take someone’s early ballot to a polling place and imposing stricter requirements on citizen groups who are sponsoring initiatives.

More than 110,000 were declared valid, far more than legally required, to force the issue to the ballot.

The next year legislators repealed the law, quashing the initiative.

But that was not the end of it.

Since that time, lawmakers have reenacted virtually all of the same provisions, breaking them into separate bills in a way to make it difficult to refer all of them to the ballot.

Daily Miner reporter Aaron Ricca contributed to this article.