- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 11, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - A group that opposes a major private school voucher expansion bill signed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey this spring says it is on track to collect enough signatures to place the law on hold.

Save Our Schools spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker says the group isn’t releasing an exact count of the number of signatures it has collected so far. But she said the all-volunteer effort should have well above the minimum of 75,000 signatures by the Aug. 8 deadline.

“We know we have enough petitions out in the field, we know exactly who has them and we have enough out that if there was such a thing as 100 percent we could be getting more than 150,000 back,” Penich-Thacker said in an interview late last week.

Opponents of vouchers say they siphon money from the state’s underfunded public schools and the expansion will allow wealthy families to use state cash to send their children to private and religious schools. They also say vouchers won’t cover total costs at many private schools, meaning people of average means won’t be able to use them. Proponents, including Ducey, say the move will save the state money and let parents decide where their children attend school.

“When parents have more choices, kids win,” Ducey tweeted after signing the expansion bill in April.

If the effort succeeds, the voucher expansion will be put on hold until voters can weigh in during the November 2018 election.

Arizona has had a school voucher program since 2011 that began as a program for disabled students. It was expanded to other groups and now allows about a third of all 1.2 million K-12 students to use public money to attend private schools.

Still, only about 3,500 students currently take advantage of the program.

The new law expands eligibility to all students by 2022 but caps total enrollment at about 30,000.

Republican state Sen. Debbie Lesko championed the measure and said she’s hoping the effort to block it fails.

“I oppose the effort because I want to allow parents to choose the best education for their child and they’re trying to stop it,” Lesko said.

The voucher bill was among the most contentious of this year’s legislative session, with most Republicans backing it but all Democrats and a handful of GOP members opposed. Opponents in the Legislature, mainly Democrats, argued that it will benefit the wealthy and sap local public schools of needed cash.

Technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the Arizona program allows parents to take between 90 percent and 100 percent of the state money a local public school would receive to pay for private or religious education. The average student who isn’t disabled currently receives about $6,000 a year to pay for tuition or other costs.

The expansion will give Arizona one of the broadest voucher programs in the nation. Nevada has a similar plan applying to all students, but its funding mechanism was struck down by the state Supreme Court and the Legislature this year failed to come up with a replacement funding plan.

The voucher law will take effect on Aug. 8 if the group doesn’t succeed in blocking it.

Penich-Thacker said the all-volunteer effort could turn professional if needed.

“We certainly won’t die on our sword if we need a boost at the end, but we have signed no contracts for paid circulators,” she said.

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