- Associated Press - Friday, December 1, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - Opponents of Arizona’s sweeping new universal school voucher law urged a judge Friday to throw out a lawsuit from school choice backers that want their voter referendum effort invalidated.

Lawyers representing the grassroots group that collected signatures over the summer to block the law until the November 2018 election told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret Mahoney that the law doesn’t allow the legal challenge.

They point to a change in in law 2015 that eliminated the individual right to challenge their petitions and was in effect when they turned in their signatures in August. That law previously allowed such challenges, and was changed again this year - taking affect a day after the signatures were submitted - to once again allow anyone to sue over perceived defects on petition sheets.

“It may be convoluted, but that was the law,” attorney Roopali Desai, who represents Save Our Schools Arizona, told the judge. “The fact that they fixed it showed (the Legislature) understood it didn’t make sense.”

Attorney Tim La Sota, who represents one of the two named plaintiffs, said that argument would lead to an “absurd result.” He said no one could challenge an initiative unless the proponent first filed suit under Desai’s interpretation.

He argued the new law is retroactive, and simply was meant as a clarification to the 2015 revisions.

“It’s no secret - the Legislature does not like initiatives or referenda, they don’t,” La Sota said. “That is the last thing in the world they would do is take away the right of a private citizens to keep them off the ballot.”

Voucher supporters argue problems with the referendum mean it should be thrown out and the law allowed to take effect. They raise several issues, including that petition sheets used to collect more than 110,000 signatures improperly identified the legislative session, many were improperly notarized and fraud in the signature-gathering process.

Mahoney said after Friday’s hearing that she would rule later on Desai’s request to dismiss the case.

Legal challenges had long been expected from the school choice groups that backed the measure. The school choice group American Federation for Children, formerly led by now-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, lobbied fiercely for the law during the legislative session. One of the plaintiffs leads the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity is a conservative group funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

The law making private school vouchers available to every student in the state was a top legislative priority of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and had the backing of the Trump administration and DeVos. The new expansion was set to take effect for the fall semester before the pro-public school groups blocked it.

It expands eligibility to all students by 2022, but it caps enrollment at about 30,000.

Arizona first passed a voucher program, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, for disabled students in 2011. It now covers a third of all students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Indian reservations, foster children and children of military members. Despite those changes, only about 3,500 students now use it to pay for private school tuition, and more than half are disabled.

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