On Sept. 30, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D) announced that a referendum on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) expansion legislation will not make the ballot.
A week earlier, the campaign for the referendum, the Save Our Schools PAC, submitted signatures to place the measure on the ballot. The campaign said it submitted 141,714 signatures. Secretary Hobbs announced that a statutorily prescribed review of the petitions failed to meet the minimum signature requirement of 118,823 signatures. While the review of the petition sheets is still ongoing, Secretary Hobbs announced that the referendum will not make the 2024 ballot.
The Save Our Schools PAC put out a statement following the failure to make the ballot. “Today, Arizona’s public schools were dealt a devastating blow,” the campaign said, “The universal ESA voucher scheme passed by the Republican controlled legislature and signed by Governor Ducey has gone into effect despite our network’s herculean effort to stop it in its tracks.”
In Arizona, an empowerment scholarship account, or ESA, allows parents or guardians of students with disabilities to sign a contract to opt out of the public school system, and instead receive an ESA from the Arizona Department of Education (DOE) that could be spent on private education, homeschooling, or other non-public education. Between 2011 and 2017, the program was expanded to cover students meeting other specified criteria.
In 2017, the Arizona State Legislature passed Senate Bill 1431 (SB1431) to expand the ESA program to make all K-12 students eligible. The Save Our Schools PAC led the campaign to place a veto referendum against SB1431 on the general election ballot for 2018. Voters rejected SB 1431, repealing the law.
During the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 2853, which would expand the ESA program to include all students eligible to enroll in an Arizona public school for kindergarten, grades one through twelve, or a preschool program for children with disabilities.
Supporters of the ESA expansion, such as the Goldwater Institute, state that it gives parents more choice. “At the end of the day the purpose of the ESA program and school choice is to give parents the ability to pursue the best education for their kids, regardless of what form it comes in,” said Matt Beienburg, director of education policy for the Goldwater Institute, “We are focused on individual student aid, not an institution or a particular form of education.”
Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools and opponent of HB 2853, said that tax dollars should not be used to fund non-public schools. “If a school wants to take public funds, they need to take public accountability,” she said.