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  • Ben Cooper

State Rep Ben Toma, AZ School Choice Bill Sponsor - Interview

Toma sponsored the school voucher bill that gives each Arizona student around $7,000 per year for any kind of schooling, including homeschooling. Video of the interview in the article.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account, ESA, has been around in Arizona for years. But so far it was only available to a limited group of people, creating a two class system. With HB2853 the ESA will be expanded to all students., making available a school voucher worth around $7,000 for every participating K-12 student. This money can be used for private, home, micro, online and hybrid schools as well, apparently, for expenses e.g. for tutors.

But the bill is under assault by public school teachers unions who hate nothing more than parents and students having a choice other than public schools. If teachers union aligned Save Our Schools Arizona PAC (SOS) obtains more than 119,000 signatures by September 24, the school choice bill will be on hold. The veto referendum would then go to the ballot, possibly as early as November 2022. There the highly organized, aggressive and well funded teachers unions which are deeply hostile to giving parents and students school choice, would launch an all out attack on the bill via their army of members. The Arizona Education Association, AEA has 20,000 members state wide. Local unions like the Chandler Education Association, CEA, have hundreds to thousands of members each.

Interview with school choice bill sponsor Rep Ben Toma - R - Video below

We asked the sponsor of the bill, Republican State Representative Ben Toma, about the future of the bill and about plans to defend it.

When asked to make a statement to those who want to kill this bill via a veto referendum, he called them misguided. Toma said that parents have moved on and that they want choice. Parents want their children educated, not kept in failing schools.

Asked about the chances of the signature drive against school choice succeeding, Toma said that he truly hopes that the drive will fail so the law stays on the books. Toma emphasized that school choice is not anti-public education, but about empowerment. He added that if school choice opponents cannot see that, then it's time for them to lose.

School choice opponents claim that school choice would take $1 Billion from public schools. Toma responded saying that studies show that competition and choice improve all schools, including public schools. Toma said that the real goal is to save the students, not a building or a system.

Asked about what will happen if school choice opponents get the needed signatures to stall the bill and put it on the ballot for a veto referendum, Toma said that it is then up to the parents to defeat it. He added that he likes "our" chances.

When asked about a similar though less expansive school choice bill that failed at the ballot box in 2018, by a margin of 2:1, Toma stated that now is a completely different situation. As reasons he cited the post-Covid world in which parents want choice, as well as the fact that the new bill is much more expansive than the old one from 2018. However, Toma did not cite any specific plans to campaign for the bill, which is concerning given that it is known that the teachers unions will heavily campaign against it in order to kill it at the ballot box.

Are school choice proponents too reliant on Decline to Sign efforts?

Toma further stated that he was approached by many parents who told him that they will be willing to go door to door and do other volunteer work in order to support the bill should it come to a veto referendum. Again though, Toma cited no concrete plans to fundraise, organize, print posters and engaged with voters. This isn't criticism of Toma and other school choice proponents, but merely an observation that could be reason for concern about the viability of the bill in the face of stiff opposition from anti-school choicers.

This is especially concerning given the fact that Toma seemed to indicate that if SOS is successful with its signature drive, that the veto referendum would have to be on the ballot for the elections in early November this year. This is only 10 weeks away.

Not only would Arizona teachers unions deploy their multi-million Dollar war chest to defeat the bill, teachers unions from other states, and national teachers unions, with around 3.5 Million members and hundreds of Millions of Dollars in yearly budgets, would join the fight to kill the bill.

It would appear that at the moment school choice proponents are not actively preparing an election campaign to support the school choice bill. Instead they seem to be waiting and seeing if the heroic efforts of an informal group of parents, Power2Parents, in slowing SOS's signature drive will succeed in keeping them under the required number of around 119,000 signatures. The group, operating under the banner Decline to Sign, is typically setting up next to signature collection stations of SOS and offers those that SOS solicits an alternative, pro school choice, narrative. This effort, led by school choice activist Christine Accurso, has been very successful in slowing the pace of signature gathering, although it would be near impossible to completely stop signings. Indeed, Christine Accurso told us that some people are so fanatically anti-school choice, that they say things like, I'm glad I wasted your time by having you talk to me, now I'll go and sign the petition.

According to Mrs Accurso, Save our School PAC, SOS, also appear to be sabotaging DTS' efforts by crowding/clogging on-line sign up sheets, filling them with comments like f**k you, to prevent real volunteers from signing up.

Importantly, the structure of the "game" is akin to SOS and DTS facing off in a football game which starts at 0:14, but in exchange denies DTS the ability to put points on the board. DTS cannot run any offense, only defense. DTS cannot collect signatures to counter those of SOS, Rather, they can merely try to prevent SOS from scoring 15 or more points to win the game, or, to come back to anti school choice activists, collect 119,000 or more signatures to get the veto referendum on the ballot and in the meantime put the school choice bill on hold.

Mathematically, given enough time, or enough resources, SOS will inevitably win as its not possible for DTS to dissuade every single person who considers signing. No football team can block all passes and stop all runs. SOS is using trained volunteers as well as paid signature collectors. Their campaign is professionally staffed and funded.

Teachers unions, other anti-school choicers are already preparing for the general election

It's a safe bet that teachers unions and other people opposing school choice have already printed tens of thousands of posters saying things like:

  • Save our Schools for the Children, Vote Yes on the Veto!

  • For Arizona Children, Vote Yes on the Veto!

  • Children Need Strong Public Schools. Yes on the Veto!

  • Vote Yes to Save Our Public Schools, For the Children!

  • Public Money for Public Schools. Vote Yes on the Veto!

And so on. The goal of such and similar advertising is to use emotions in order to fool people into believing that killing school choice is good for children, without ever saying so explicitly.

It may be imprudent for school choice supporters to rely solely on the efforts of Decline to Sign. This is not to criticize their passionate and effective actions, but simply a realization that collecting 119,000 signatures is not that difficult. Arizona has ~60,000 public school teachers, ~20,000 of which are members of the Arizona Education Association. Local unions like the Chandler Education Association, CEA, have hundreds to thousands of members each. There are ~60,000 non-teaching staff members of public school district. Many have spouses and extended family that are likely to sign and vote against school choice. Government workers in cities and communities and at the state level are more often than not opposed to school choice too. In a state of around 7 Million inhabitants, 119,000 signatures is very achievable with good organization, no matter how bad your ideas are.

The other side of this coin is the urgency. If the measure is on the ballot on November 8, 2022, then there are only a few weeks left for school choice supporters to raise money, organized teams, print T-shirts, print posters, place posters, knock on doors and do outreach on the internet. This means that they should start some basic preparations right now, e.g. set up a Political Action Committee, bring on board a good team, raise money, get a few poster, T-shirt and flier designs ready to go and line up print shops. This is so that if despite Decline to Sign's actions, SOS is successful with the signature drive, school choice proponents are ready to go to fight it out on the ballot. Because the pubic school teachers unions are ready, locked and loaded.



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