Days after filing what they said were ample signatures to block Arizona's universal-voucher law, the Save Our Schools organization conceded Monday that it likely has fallen short.
That means parents seeking to use taxpayer dollars for private schooling can join the list that, as of last week, had more than 11,000 students ready to enroll in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.
It also would confirm Arizona's status as the first state in the nation to enact a universal school voucher program, something that school choice proponents have pushed for more than a decade.
The abrupt change in fortunes came after the Goldwater Institute and the Center for Arizona Policy, key backers of universal vouchers and school choice, assembled a team to comb through 8,125 sheets of petition signatures that public school advocates submitted Friday to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office.
They counted 88,866 signatures, far short of the minimum 118,843 signatures required by law.
Save Our Schools had announced Friday that it had gathered 141,714 signatures — a 19% cushion. But on Monday, in light of the Goldwater Institute's news release revealing its finding, the group's director all but conceded defeat.
"We just sometimes get things wrong," Beth Lewis, the director of Save Our Schools, said.
The anti-voucher drive likely will lack nearly 53,000 signatures if the secretary of state's review matches that done by the Goldwater Institute. That review is expected no later than mid-October.
Voucher backers celebrate news
A shortfall of that size, about 37% less than the number of signatures supporters said they gathered, is not a "rounding error," said Christine Sawhill Accurso. She organized school-choice proponents to monitor petition signing stations — sometimes pushing back against the petition drive — and report their findings. Either Save Our Schools lied about its support, or was negligent in checking the petitions as they came in, Accurso said.
She said Monday's revelation was not surprising, adding the network she organized supplied daily reports from Save Our Schools locations of signing activity, or the lack of it.
Lewis said there was no attempt to mislead. Things were chaotic in the final weeks of the 80-day drive and internal controls weren't rigorous toward the end, she said. Plus, the volunteer effort didn't have the money of more sophisticated petition drives to check every petition as it came in.
"We really thought we had a lot more," Lewis said of the signature count. "It's a devastating blow to our public schools."
Although the challenge is not officially over, school choice proponents were quick to celebrate.
The Goldwater Institute sent out a congratulatory email to its supporters, saying it had an extensive plan for defeating the referendum. House Majority Ben Toma, R-Peoria and the prime sponsor of the universal voucher bill, called the development another major win for school choice.
"School choice is increasingly popular with Arizona parents, especially those whose children are stuck in a failing school, so I find it baffling that anyone would try so hard to take that choice away from parents," Toma said in a news release.
The Goldwater Institute, claimed credit for the work done by dozens of parents who support school choice, sparking criticism from the people who spent the summer going to petition-signing locations to discourage people from signing the referendum petitions.
"All across the state, Goldwater’s 'Decline to Sign' grassroots volunteers showed up to signature drives to provide voters with the facts about what the referendum would do to parental rights in our state, greatly reducing the number of individuals willing to sign on to the effort," Goldwater President and CEO Victor Riches wrote.
But Accurso and other parents said Goldwater, along with the Center for Arizona Policy, were taking a victory lap at their expense. Accurso said she organized the parents through her own networks, and opened a GoFundMe account to cover their expenses. They did accept unsolicited literature from Goldwater to hand out at the signing stations, she said.
Michelle Dillard, an ESA advocate and a member of Purple for Parents, said the volunteers were not affiliated with Goldwater and it was offensive to claim so.
"Only to show up after the hard work was done (by others) to try to capitalize on the success of the PARENTS," she wrote on Facebook. "It's truly a spectacular display of unmitigated gall."
On Tuesday, Goldwater issued a statement saying it is "proud to have worked alongside" all of the proponents of universal ESAs, adding all who worked to make the program possible deserve credit.
The institute did not address the claims that it had nothing to do with the parent efforts to dissuade people from signing the petitions.
Save Our Schools plans watchdog role
Lewis said those efforts dampened support, especially when the exchanges got heated.
"There were people stalking us and yelling at us, " she said. Pleasant outings at weekend farmer's markets would get testy when the parents with "Decline to Sign" placards would confront public-school advocates, she said.
Lewis said Save Our Schools and its supporters will press on, serving as a watchdog for a program that has little transparency. They will track which students benefit from the program and how the taxpayer dollars are spent.
"We are not going to stop until the privatization of our school ends," said Lewis, herself a public school teacher.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona voucher expansion repeal unlikely to make ballot, backers say