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Proposition 305: Voters scrub voucher expansion

A woman arrives to her polling station, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. Elections officials say 62 polling locations in the Phoenix area weren't operational when voting began in Arizona's primary. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Arizona voters refused Tuesday to ratify a bid by Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers to allow any of the state’s 1.1 million students in public schools to get vouchers of state tax dollars to attend private and parochial schools.

Early returns showed a majority of voters want to limit the voucher program to those who already qualify for the state dollars. A vote for the measure would have removed all preconditions for students to get vouchers.

The vote on Proposition 305 followed a poorly financed campaign by proponents of “school choice” to uphold the 2017 changes in the law governing what are officially known as “empowerment scholarship accounts.” Foes of the expansion not only had more money — about $600,000 versus $54,000 for the pro-305 campaign — but also took advantage of the tailwind of  support by many Arizonans for more dollars for public education.

Vouchers were first approved in 2011 to provide alternatives for students with special physical or emotional needs that their parents said could not be met at either traditional public or charter schools.

But supporters made it clear from the start that their plan was eventually to allow any student to get public dollars for a private education.

Since then there has been a near constant expansion of eligibility, to the point where it includes foster children, children living on reservations and those attending public schools rated D or F. About 4,500 youngsters currently get the vouchers.

The original 2017 proposal would have phased in those universal vouchers.

That proved politically unacceptable. So the final legislation removed all the preconditions for getting a voucher, but with a cap of about 30,000 by 2022.

But even before the governor’s signature was fully dried, Darcy Olson, then the chief executive of the Goldwater Institute, boasted to supporters that “we will get it lifted.”

All that energized those who contend that vouchers effectively siphon money from public schools, with private schools free to take – or reject – who they want. Organized as Save Our Schools, they took advantage of a provision of the Arizona Constitution which holds up enactment of any new law if foes can get 75,321 valid signatures within 90 days after the end of the session, giving voters a chance to ratify or reject the legislative action.

They actually got far more and weathered a legal challenge by voucher supporters who tried to keep the measure off the ballot.

The anti-305 campaign also benefited from a division among parents whose children now are eligible for the vouchers.

Some urged expansion, citing the benefits they saw in being able to send their own youngsters to private schools. But others feared that opening up eligibility to all could leave insufficient funds – and openings – for those with special needs, the children for whom the program was first designed to help.

The signature-gathering process to put Proposition 305 on the ballot and the subsequent anti-voucher campaign had ripple effects.

It led to the Red for Ed movement and the teacher strike. That ultimately forced Gov. Doug Ducey, who originally had proposed just a 1 percent pay hike for teachers, to reassess the state’s finances and conclude he actually could offer up 19 percent by 2020.

Proposition 305 by the numbers

Early votes

Yes 32.5

No 67.5

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