/ Modified apr 9, 2020 1:07 p.m.

Coronavirus measures hamper education initiatives striving to get onto ballot

Groups have joined with other citizen initiatives in a lawsuit to force Arizona to use an electronic signature collection platform.

To qualify for this autumn's general election, organizers of ballot initiatives need to collect 237,645 verified signatures.

"And living in the state of Arizona, where signatures are crossed off left and right for any number of reasons — they could be invalid. We were looking to get many more than that, probably closer to 400,000 or so," said Wes Oswald, a fourth grade teacher at Manzo Elementary School in Tucson and one of the organizers of the Invest In Ed campaign, which began collecting signatures in February.

"It's a massive effort, and COVID-19 has just made it that much more difficult."

The Invest In Ed measure would impose a 3.5% surcharge on income taxes for the state's top earners, individuals who make more than $250,000 a year or $500,000 per household. Organizers say that would raise an expected $940 million each year for K-12 education.

"Our campaign was making very good traction in the roughly one month we had of collecting signatures. But this has definitely put up a pretty thick wall between us and potential signees," said Oswald.

Another campaign, Save Our Schools Arizona, had even less time for in-person canvassing.

"Really, by our second weekend we were already changing plans, wearing face masks and gloves, letting people know that we had bleached our pen," said cofounder Dawn Penich-Thacker. "And then really a day or two after that we realized that really being out in public wasn't a good idea anymore."

She said in the two weeks before the shutdown, Save Our Schools didn't come anywhere close to their goal of 300,000 signatures.

"The two weeks that we did have out and about, people were really enthusiastic. They really want to see these changes made."

Save our Schools proposes limiting and reforming the state's school voucher program, which provides students state funds to attend private schools.

The two education initiatives joined other campaigns in suing to force the state of Arizona to allow them to collect signatures online using an online verification platform called E-Qual.

"That would make a huge difference. It would mean that voters in Arizona still have their right to due process, their right to vote, their right to making and impacting laws, which is something that is guaranteed in our constitution," said Penich-Thacker.

And the online system already exists.

"It's what politicians use every couple of years to get their own signatures," she said. "And so the fact that it already exists, it would be a seamless transition, it seemed to us like a really reasonable thing for all of these efforts to be able to go online right now," she said.

Earlier this week Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a democrat, issued a statement supporting online signature gathering. The Arizona Supreme Court is expected to decide later this month or possibly in May. Campaigns have until July 2 to collect enough signatures.

Oswald of Invest in Ed said while the COVID-19 pandemic has clouded the forecast for his group's campaign, it's also shining a new light on the importance of public schools.

"Not only in terms of providing education for kids, but for providing a safe place during the day, for providing a nurse, for providing free meals to students," he said.

And that could really help his campaign come November, if they're able to get on the ballot.

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