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The Future of School Choice: Arizona’s New ESA Program



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Imagine how different public education in America would be if parents had real control of the $500 billion (more than $10,000 per child) that is spent on their children’s behalf. With its new state-funded ESA program, Arizona is about to give us a window into that possible and exciting future.

Since 1955, Milton Friedman and his many disciples have been championing approaches that would give power to parents — through school-choice policies like vouchers, tax credits, and the establishment of charter schools. The result has been a proliferation of innovative programs that enable more parents to choose their children’s school, leading to increased parental satisfaction, higher test scores, rising graduation rates, and improved public-school performance.

To date, none of these valuable school-choice policies have provided parents with full control over their children’s share of school funding. But that will now change with the newest (and most aggressive) school-choice policy ever enacted.

Earlier this month, Arizona governor Jan Brewer approved SB 15523, legislation that authorizes “Arizona Empowerment Accounts” that will give the parents of eligible special-education students the opportunity to receive state-funded education savings accounts (ESAs) to be used to purchase an education for the child (with appropriate state oversight). Funds can be used for designated purposes including private-school tuition, tutoring, and online education. Any savings can be kept in the account and used in future years or, ultimately, on the child’s college education. The Goldwater Institute, which first proposed this idea in 2005, has the details.

The enactment of this program marks a dramatic shift in the school-choice and education-reform debate. Earlier this year, when Florida governor Rick Scott proposed a system of universal state-funded K-12 ESAs, Reihan Salam called the proposal among “the most significant, transformative ideas I’ve ever seen advanced by an actual elected official with any real power.”

This year is likely to be a landmark year for school choice and education reform, with Speaker Boehner’s successful reauthorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and potential school-choice victories in Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But no victory will be bigger than Arizona’s, especially if other states follow its lead and dramatically increase parents’ control of their children’s educational future by enacting state-funded education savings accounts.

— Carrie Lukas is the managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum (www.iwf.org).



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