School vouchers

Volunteers unloaded boxes of petitions with more than 111,000 signatures to try to force a public vote on an expanded school-voucher program.

PHOENIX — Supporters of universal vouchers of tax dollars for private and parochial education have opened a second legal front in their attempt to keep voters from getting the last word on the issue.

A second lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court contends there are irregularities with the petitions turned in to refer the question to the 2018 ballot. Attorney Kory Langhofer cites nearly four dozen situations where he said the petitions do not comply with the law.

If a judge agrees, that would leave the referendum drive without sufficient signatures.

Voucher supporters raised some of the same issues with the Secretary of State’s Office in a bid to have the office void the petitions. Elections Director Eric Spencer did not agree with their legal arguments, giving the petitions preliminary approval.

But Langhofer pointed out that Arizona law requires referendum petitions be in “strict compliance” with all election laws.

He wants the judge to order Secretary of State Michele Reagan to “reject all sheets and signatures in the referendum petition that do not strictly comply with all governing provisions of Arizona law.”

The referendum is aimed at undermining a measure approved earlier this year by the Republican-backed Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey to allow more Arizona children to get public dollars for a private education.

The original program approved in 2011 was designed to provide what are formally called Education Scholarship Accounts to students with special needs that could not be met in public schools. But voucher supporters have slowly widened the door to where the program now includes foster children, children from reservations and children who attend schools rated D and F.

This year’s legislation removes all those restrictions, saying any student could get a voucher.

To get the votes, however, supporters had to agree to a cap of 30,000 vouchers by 2023 out of more than 1.1 million children attending public schools. But that cap can be removed by a future Legislature.

On Thursday, Ducey defended the use of tax dollars for private and parochial education amid complaints Arizona spends less than virtually every other state on its public schools.

“I am a supporter of public education,” he said. “Public education means educating our public.”

Nor is he dissuaded by the fact that public funds can go toward providing a religious education.

“We’re allowing parents access to their tax dollars in the service of their child’s education,” Ducey said.

Opponents of an expanded voucher program argue that it diverts dollars that would otherwise go to underfunded public schools. But Ducey said vouchers don’t by themselves take money from public schools, though if more children use vouchers to go to private schools, state aid to public schools is reduced.

Having lost the legislative battle, foes of expansion are taking advantage of a provision in the Arizona Constitution that gives voters the last word if they are able to gather signatures equal to 5 percent of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. That’s 75,321, a figure the referendum organizers appear to have met, the Secretary of State’s Office said last week after apreliminary review.

Langhofer and fellow attorneys hope to chip away at that number.

For example, one contention is that signatures do not count unless they have both the signer’s street address as well as a zip code. There also are claims that people who were paid circulators did not first register with the state as required by law, some names of circulators did not match their signatures, and that the date a notary put on a circulator’s affidavit is incorrect.

The lawsuit also says there are situations where signatures are illegible or where the person’s printed name, which is also required, looks just like the person’s signature.

Spencer, the elections director, already found some of those arguments lacking.

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For example, he disputes that Arizona law requires both an address and a zip code.

And Spencer said there are people whose signatures just happen to look like their printed names.

But Spencer said some of the arguments made by voucher supporters about the petitions were beyond the scope of what he could decide.

One appears to be largely a technicality.

Arizona law requires that referendum petitions tell would-be signers not just the bill number of the measure at issue but in which legislative session that bill was approved.

This measure was approved in the “First Legislative Session of the 53rd Legislature,” with each “legislature” running two years. But Langhofer pointed out the petitions said the measure was approved at the 53rd session of the Legislature, which legally never existed.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for the Save Our Schools campaign pushing for the referendum, said no one was misled.

“What this comes down to is, did Arizona voters know what they were signing?” she said. “And absolutely, they did.”

Langhofer, however, said that under the “strict compliance” for referenda, things can be disqualified from the ballot “even in the absence of confusion.”