Judge appears skeptical of pro-voucher supporters’ arguments

They want court to prevent voters from weighing in on new law

PHOENIX — Foes of universal school vouchers are counting on a gap in state law to preserve their bid to force a public vote on the issue.

Roopali Desai, attorney for Save Our Schools Arizona, said Secretary of State Michele Reagan has determined there are more than enough signatures to give voters the last word on whether all parents can use tax dollars to send their children to private or parochial schools. That sets the stage for the measure going on the 2018 ballot.

What has happened, Desai said, is two individuals have filed suit contending there are multiple deficiencies in the petitions and the signatures. The challengers hope to have Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret Mahoney conclude those flaws would disqualify enough signatures to leave the referendum drive short of the minimum needed.

Desai is not conceding the point. But in new legal filings, she is telling Mahoney all that is irrelevant.

She said there was a law allowing individuals to sue to challenge petitions. But that, Desai said, was repealed in 2015.

Lawmakers restored that right this year, with the renewed statute taking effect on Aug. 9.

Why that matters, Desai said, is that Save Our Schools Arizona started its referendum drive on May 11 and submitted the signatures on Aug. 8. And she contends only challenges allowed between those dates can be heard -- challenges which the law during those dates could not come from individuals.

Those seeking to quash the referendum will argue that it is the law that was in effect on Aug. 23, the date the challenge was filed, that should govern. Mahoney will hear arguments on the issue in December.

At issue is SB 1487 which vastly expands eligibility for vouchers.

The program was originally started in 2011 to help students with various disabilities who could not get their needs met at traditional public schools. Since then, however, supporters of the concept have moved incrementally to widen the law to the point that it includes children in foster families, children living on reservations and those in schools rated D or F.

There are about 3,500 students now getting vouchers.

This year Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, sought to throw the doors wide open to eliminate any preconditions, making vouchers available to all 1.1 million students attending public schools. But she had to agree to a cap of 30,000 by 2023 to get the necessary votes.

The referendum, if allowed to proceed, would stay the expansion until the November general election when voters would get the last word whether to ratify or reject the change.