Arizona anti-voucher referendum poised to make ballot

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

Opponents of Arizona's sweeping new school voucher law took a big step toward blocking it until voters can weigh in next year, after state officials determined that 97 percent of the 111,000 signatures collected by a grassroots group passed an initial certification.

[RELATED: The fight over funding school vouchers continues in Arizona]

That means county recorders who will review a 5 percent sampling of the signatures over the next three weeks could reject 30 percent and the voter referendum would still make the ballot.

The measure is temporarily on hold until the signature certification process concludes. The law extends eligibility to all 1.2 million Arizona students by 2022 but caps enrollment at about 30,000.

[READ MORE: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs school voucher bill]

Voucher backers say they give parents more choice, while opponents argue they siphon money from cash-starved public schools.

If the law is blocked until the November 2018 election, it would be a major defeat for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, the Legislature's Republican majority and Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Ducey championed the expansion, while DeVos is a big proponent of private school vouchers and formerly led the school choice group American Federation for Children, which lobbied for the law in this year's legislative session.

[READ MORE: AZ Teachers of the Year slam Gov. Ducey over voucher program]

Certification is considered fairly likely, even by state Elections Director Eric Spencer, who certified more than 108,000 of the signatures. He said backers "should be pretty confident that at least 70 percent of the people that signed this are actually registered voters."

Standing in the way are school voucher backers. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that backs Ducey and is funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has already filed one lawsuit and others are certain to come if the referendum is certified for the ballot.

The lawsuit targets paid circulators who school choice proponents contend weren't legally qualified to collect signatures.

The group's lawyers also sent letters to Spencer asking him to invalidate the entire referendum because the introduction of the petition sheets incorrectly referred to this year's legislative session.

[SPECIAL SECTION: Arizona politics]

Tim La Sota, a lawyer who represents voucher proponents, called the secretary of state's certification review "fairly superficial."

"There are many, many more signatures that are invalid but that the secretary of state does not have a duty to disqualify," La Sota said in a statement Saturday.

He also said the petition sheet fails to correctly identify what law is being referred to voters.

"We are confident that there are not enough legitimate signatures for this referendum to go the ballot," he said.

Roopali DeSai, an attorney for the grassroots group Save Our Schools Arizona whose volunteers collected the signatures, said she believes they will prevail in court.

"I think their claim is baseless and desperate and I think that we have complied with the law and our petitions are legally sufficient," she said late Friday.

Voucher-backers also wanted Spencer to invalidate potentially tens of thousands of signatures for various other purported flaws. He eventually eliminated nearly 2,000 signatures, but said it is outside his legal authority to eliminate others under what he called "creative legal arguments."

Spencer sent a letter to the attorney for the group late Friday and suggested he might raise the issue with a judge.

Arizona first passed a voucher program, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, for disabled students in 2011. The program differs from traditional vouchers by giving state funding directly to parents, who can use the cash to pay for private school tuition, home-schooling or other education expenses.

The program has been repeatedly expanded and 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 and more than half are disabled.

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