A.E. Araiza / Arizona Daily Star 2006

PHOENIX — A judge has refused to block voters from getting the last word on whether to expand a voucher system that uses public funds to send children to private and parochial schools.

In a six-page ruling made public Tuesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret Mahoney ruled that the law in effect last year when a referendum on voucher expansion was filed did not give individuals the right to challenge petition drives.

Mahoney acknowledged that lawmakers voted to create an individual challenge option last year, but that change took effect on Aug. 9.

The petitions demanding a public vote on voucher expansion were turned in on Aug. 8. Quite simply, Mahoney said, there is no legal basis for the challenge to those petitions.

The judge also rejected the contention by voucher supporters that some of the petitions had to be thrown out because the required signature of the person notarizing the document did not precisely match the name on the notary’s official stamp. Mahoney said the law doesn’t require that.

Mahoney also rejected the contention that some petition circulators made false statements to would-be signers about what the voucher expansion law would do if allowed to take effect, including that it would be the rich who benefit. The judge said voucher supporters, in filing suit, did not identify who made such statements, to whom they were made, how they were false, and whether the person who heard the comments relied on the statements in signing the petitions.

Attorney Tim La Sota, who represents voucher supporters, vowed an appeal.

He said that, despite Mahoney’s ruling, the group called Save Our Schools Arizona, which gathered sufficient signatures to force a public vote, “did not successfully make the ballot and many of the things they did were in serious violation of the law.”

But unless her ruling is overturned, Mahoney’s order means voters will get to decide if there will be a big expansion in who is eligible to get a voucher to attend private and parochial schools.

That, in turn, will lead to an expensive and extensive campaign by voucher supporters, including Gov. Doug Ducey.

Ducey, who signed the voucher expansion into law in 2017, is likely to call on out-of-state friends to finance the effort to keep it from being overturned.

Just this past weekend, the governor attended an event in California for major donors hosted by the Koch brothers, who are big supporters of vouchers.

The Washington Post, reporting on the event, said Ducey told those in attendance that what was enacted in Arizona is far more extensive than anything tried elsewhere. He also warned that if the measure goes to the ballot and voters reject the expansion, that could constitutionally preclude lawmakers from addressing the issue again.

“This is a very real fight in my state,” the Post reported Ducey as telling the Koch network of major donors to conservative causes.

Arizona lawmakers first approved vouchers in 2011 to aid students with disabilities whose parents said they could not get their needs met in public schools.

Parents of eligible children were given what are formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts,” essentially vouchers of state dollars to pay for tuition, tutoring and other needs.

Since then, the Legislature has widened eligibility incrementally to where vouchers are now available to foster children, residents of Indian reservations and any student attending a school rated D or F. About 3,500 children now get such vouchers.

Last year, Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, pushed through the legislation to remove all restrictions, essentially making vouchers available to all 1.1 million students in Arizona public schools. That proved to be a step too far for even some voucher supporters. So what was finally approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Ducey eliminates eligibility barriers but places a cap of 30,000 vouchers by 2023.

Then, foes of the expansion used a provision in the Arizona Constitution that allows those opposed to any legislative action to gather enough signatures to refer the measure to the ballot.

Their successful petition drive keeps the law from taking effect until voters get a chance to ratify or reject it.