Arizona Considers the Nation’s First Universal School-Choice Program

Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix (Dreamstime photo: Americanspirit)
A bill that would expand state-funded education savings accounts could land on Governor Doug Ducey’s desk as early as this week.

Arizona could soon become the first state in the nation to institute a universal school-choice program. And because the state already has a successful, but more limited, program in place — a funding system that has been expanded several times over the last few years — there is a solid foundation on which to build the effort.

The bill to expand the program could land on Arizona governor Doug Ducey’s desk as early as this week. It has already passed the education committees in both chambers of the state legislature and, since there is just a month left in the session, a full vote on the bill is expected sometime in April. Because Ducey has approved developments to this school-choice program in past years, it is likely that he will support this latest expansion.

The Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank, has been on the front lines of Arizona’s school-choice movement for the last decade. In 2006, the group introduced the concept of education savings accounts, and this idea was first enacted across the state in 2011 in a program for children with special needs. The Empowerment Scholarship Account program has used this savings-account model and expanded it every year since to include more students, including those in failing schools or adopted from foster care, as well as children of military members and children who live on Native American reservations.

The program now enrolls 3,300 students, and the new bill would expand access slowly over the course of the next four academic years by opening the program to students in a few grade levels each year. About half of the students currently enrolled are children with special needs.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts function in a similar way to health savings accounts, which help individuals or families save for health-care needs and are often partially funded by the government. In the case of Arizona’s ESAs, the state deposits funding into each account, and a child’s parents can use the funds for a wide variety of expenses, such as private-school tuition, college-savings plans, online classes, and tutoring.

For the 2015–16 school year, the accounts received about $4,600 for K–8th grade students and just under $5,000 for high-school students. Special-needs students can receive additional funding, the amount of which varies depending on the services required.

These accounts differ from vouchers in that parents can use the money to finance several educational needs simultaneously. This distinction is important. In 2009, the Arizona supreme court ruled that vouchers violate the state’s constitutional provisions against using public money for private or religious purposes. But in 2014, the state supreme court upheld a lower-court ruling determining that ESAs are constitutional because they are fundamentally different from vouchers.

Though some worry that greater state support for school choice will detract from the public-school system, the examples of student success as a result of the ESA program tell a different story. “For those pleased with their local public school, carry on,” says Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute. “But every child is different and learns at a different pace — so families should have the chance to find the best educational opportunities if an assigned school isn’t working.”

Consider Max Ashton, who has been blind since birth, but who nonetheless climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, and swam across the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island, all before graduating from high school. An ESA enabled his parents to afford private-school tuition and Braille materials, and he earned a scholarship to attend Loyola Marymount University in California.

Or take Tim and Lynn McMurray, who decided to adopt three unrelated children, all of whom are of Native American descent, and who have physical and developmental needs — Alecia suffers from fetal-alcohol syndrome, while Uriah and Valerie both have mild cerebral palsy. When all three children encountered serious challenges in the state’s education system, the ESA program helped the McMurrays finance home-based instruction and educational therapy.

Meanwhile, Nathan Howard struggled in the public-school system as a child on the autism spectrum, and he barely spoke until he reached the age of six. Using an ESA, his family moved him to a school that offers special support for students with autism, and they also hired a one-on-one tutor for him. “For me, using an education savings account isn’t a form of protest or an act of defiance against the school system,” Nathan’s mother, Amanda, wrote in a 2013 column in the Arizona Republic. “It’s a chance to give Nathan a better future.”

Butcher believes this latest expansion effort will be worthwhile for the state: “Instead of trying to predict all the problems ESAs are trying to solve, we should give students the chance to use an account if their assigned school isn’t a good fit.”

Some Arizonans might protest the continued growth of the state’s school-choice movement, arguing that it’s somehow harmful to public schools and under-privileged children. But as the results of the ESA program have shown thus far, diversity of affordable education options for Arizona’s youth will nearly always lead to greater success.

— Alexandra DeSanctis is a National Review Institute William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.


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