Petition started to fight vouchers for all Arizona students

PHOENIX – Arizona voters may get the last word on making vouchers available to all students.

A group of parents is hoping to gather 75,321 valid signatures on petitions by early August by foes of the legislation approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey. If they succeed, the law cannot take effect until voters get a chance to ratify or reject the measure at the November general election.

The effort annoyed Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who championed the expansion legislation under the banner of promoting more choice for families.

“What are these people afraid of?’’ she asked. “If their schools do a good job, their parents will choose their school.’’

But Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the organizers of the referendum, said that’s missing the point.

“If our public schools were funded and our teachers were well paid and our classrooms had the supplies that they need, then great, give vouchers to everybody,’’ she said.

“But that’s not where we are in Arizona,’’ Penich-Thacker continued. “Not even close. We are at the bottom of the barrel.’’

About 5,500 children now use the vouchers which are worth about $5,600 a year, though students with disabilities can get more.

The new law would make all 1.1 million students in public schools eligible, regardless of background, though the base amount is reduced to $4,400, though it includes a permanent cap of about 30,000.

Penich-Thacker said Arizona already has a lot of options for parents, including an extensive system of charter schools. These are public schools that can be run by private organizations but who cannot charge tuition beyond what the state provides.

In fact, she said she sends her own children, age 15 and 11, to charter schools.

Arizona has had vouchers since 2011. Originally earmarked for children with special needs, lawmakers have slowly expanded eligibility to the point where it now includes foster children, reservation residents and students attending schools rated D or F.

Penich-Thacker said the problem is that any dollars shipped off to help parents pay for private and parochial schools means less money for what she said is an underfunded public school system.