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‘Smoking deal’ lands paid circulators for anti-voucher group

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Foes of taxpayer funded school vouchers are now using paid circulators to boost the chances that voters get the last word on the legislatively approved expansion of the program.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the organizers of the referendum drive, acknowledged Monday that Save Our Schools had planned to try to gather the 75,321 valid signatures needed by Aug. 8 purely with volunteers. They want to quash legislation that would make vouchers of state dollars available to parent of all students to send their children to private or parochial schools.

She insisted they were on target to do that. But Penich-Thacker told Capitol Media Services the group has found itself with some unexpected money.

“We’ve had volunteers saying, ‘I can’t give more hours but I’d love to donate if you’re going to be hiring,’ ” she said.

And there’s something else: It’s apparently a relative bargain right now to find people willing to seek out petition signers.

Last week the organizers of two separate petition drives over changes in laws governing the initiative process announced they were suspending their use of paid circulators. Campaign manager Joe Yuhas said the cost of a lawsuit to try to have one of those changes voided by a judge had pretty much drained available dollars.

Penich-Thacker said that left a lot of people who had been working on those petitions and counting on the income in a lurch. And she said they were more than willing to make themselves available — at a relative bargain.

“We got a smoking deal,” she said. Penich-Thacker said the extra dollars will not only ensure that they get the minimum number of signatures necessary but also a cushion in case some prove invalid. She is shooting for 120,000.

She declined to say how much circulators are being paid.

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who has been the prime proponent of expanded vouchers, said she was unaware of the cash and the new ability of foes to hire paid circulators.

She acknowledged that increases the chances the petition drive will succeed. That would mean the legislation will not take effect as scheduled on Aug. 9 but instead be put on “hold” until the 2018 general election when voters decide whether to ratify what lawmakers approved earlier this year.

Arizona has had vouchers — formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts” — since 2011. They were originally designed as an option for parents of children with special needs who believe their youngsters would do better in a private or parochial school.

Lawmakers have slowly expanded the program where it now includes foster children, reservation residents and students attending schools rated D or F. About 5,500 children now use the vouchers which are worth about $5,600 a year, though students with disabilities can get more.

The new law would make all 1.1 million students in public schools eligible, regardless of background. But in a last-minute compromise to secure necessary votes, lawmakers agreed to reduce the base award to $4,400 and include a permanent cap of about 30,000.

Proponents say the vouchers provide another option for parents beyond both traditional public schools and charter schools, which also are public.

But opponents contend that money shifted to these private and parochial schools, which can pick and choose which students to take, leaves less money for public schools. They cite figures showing that Arizona’s per-student funding is close to the bottom of all states, with teacher pay at or near the bottom, even with a 1 percent increase approved for this year by the legislature and the promise of another 1 percent next school year.

Lesko said some legislative decisions need to be made if the referendum drive succeeds and the issue goes to the 2018 ballot. One is to make changes to the plan.

That would effectively repeal this year’s legislation. More to the point, it would eliminate a public vote as the revised law would be different than what voters sought to refer to the ballot.

And if opponents are unhappy with the revisions they would have to start a new referendum drive from scratch.

“All options are on the table,” Lesko said, saying she would have to consult with legislative leaders and other supporters of vouchers before deciding what to do.

During the debate earlier this year, the fight over the expansion went beyond the question of using public funds for a private or religious education. There also was the issue of who benefits.

There is some evidence that many of the students who now get vouchers have moved from public schools in affluent neighborhoods. That has led to charges that vouchers do not help the poor but simply defray what parents have to pay to have their youngsters attend private schools where tuition can top $15,000 a year.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who crafted the modified expansion plan that lawmakers eventually adopted, did not dispute during the debate that taxpayers may be subsidizing tuition for those of means.

But he said the cost to taxpayers is no more than if the student stayed in public schools. And he said there’s also a philosophical argument supporting vouchers.

“There are some on the ESA side that feel that, regardless of your income you pay taxes,” he said. “And getting an equivalent amount of those taxes to apply to your choice for education is not immoral.”

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