Education voucher opponents take first step to bring issue to vote

State Elections Director Eric Spencer hauls boxes of petitions submitted Thursday. (HOWARD FISCHER/Capitol Media Services)

State Elections Director Eric Spencer hauls boxes of petitions submitted Thursday. (HOWARD FISCHER/Capitol Media Services)

PHOENIX – A referendum to kill expansion of the voucher program survived its first hurdle despite efforts of the lawyers who don't want it going to the ballot.

State Elections Director Eric Spencer concluded there are more than enough signatures on petitions calling for a 2018 vote, even after he disqualified some of them. That sets the stage for county recorders to do their own verification.

But Spencer rejected efforts by attorneys for those who want universal vouchers to strike even more names from the more than 110,000 submitted to call for an election.

In some cases he said that there is no legal basis for the objections. And in others he told the lawyers that if they want to pursue their claims they need to make their claims to a judge – something vouchers supporters already have started with a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court.

They have their work cut out for them.

Spencer concluded petitions with more than 108,000 signatures survived the first test, far more than the 75,321 that ultimately need to be found valid.

The next step is for county recorders to do a name-by-name check of a random sample that Spencer has prepared for each. But given how many above the minimum he said cleared the first hurdle, the recorders need to find that only 69.6 percent of their samples are valid.

Hanging in the balance is whether voters will get the last word on legislation to make vouchers of state money to attend private and parochial schools available to any public school student.

The vouchers, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, were first approved in 2011 to help parents of students with disabilities who said their children cannot get the help they need in public schools.

Since then, however, supporters have nibbled away at the restrictions. Among those now eligible for vouchers are foster children, children living on reservations and those attending schools rated D or F.

SB 1431, approved with only Republican votes, eliminates any requirements.

About the only limit is that total vouchers cannot exceed about 30,000 by 2023, a provision inserted solely to get the necessary votes. But that can be removed at any time by a future legislature.

If sufficient signatures on referendum petitions are determined to be valid, SB 1431 cannot take effect unless and until voters give their approval at the 2018 general election.