Arizona’s expansion of school choice earns national plaudits 

Arizona is earning national plaudits for its recent passage of a school choice program that will allow all students to attend the school of their choice by using a state-sponsored scholarship.

The expansion of school choice has been a priority of Gov. Doug Ducey over the course of his nearly eight-year tenure, and his final legislative session as governor marked the successful culmination of his agenda to help more students access the educational environment that fits their needs. 

“Let’s think big and find more ways to get kids into the school of their parents’ choice, especially those in failing schools or who can’t afford to pick up and move to a new neighborhood. Send me the bills, and I’ll sign them,” Ducey told lawmakers at his January 10 State of the State address.

The Legislature delivered in the final days of the legislative session with passage of HB 2853, which makes Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, available to all K-12 students.

Begun in 2011, ESAs were previously limited only to students who fell into certain categories.

HB 2853, which was sponsored by Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, and passed along party lines, also expands the use of ESA funds for transportation and equipment like computers or other education technology. The scholarship money is funded by the state and equal to 90% of what the state would provide for charter-school students.

“Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools,” Ducey said after the bill’s passage. “Today, their future success is unlocked. With this legislation, Arizona will now be the first state in the nation to offer all families the option to choose the school setting that works best for them.” 

National commentators have taken notice.

“Most other state programs cap the number of students, set income eligibility requirements, or require students to be enrolled in public schools to apply. Arizona’s program may be the nation’s broadest,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

Writing in National Review, national reporter John Fund said, “Kudos to Governor Ducey and Arizona legislators for giving parents the power to go around the Education Blob and take control of their children’s education.”

Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, called the bill’s passage “the biggest school choice victory in U.S. history.” 

“Families will be able to take state funded education dollars to any education provider that meets their student’s curricular needs whether that be public, private, or a home-based educational option,” he said.

Despite concern from some corners about how the expanded program will affect district and charter school funding, Arizona’s ESA program costs roughly $6,400 for a typical student, compared to the more than $11,000 that state and local taxpayers spend on each public school student. 

Other states have taken notice. The editorial board at the Las Vegas Review-Journal in applauding Arizona’s program wrote, “Public school bureaucrats and their defenders claim Nevada needs to spend more to improve education. But Nevada politicians have tried that approach for decades. It hasn’t worked.”

In a radio interview on Monday, DeAngelis said, “At the end of the day it’s only going to lead to families having a choice for their kids. Educational funding is meant for educating children, not for propping up and protecting a particular institution whether it’s public or private. Arizona has allowed the money to follow the child. Arizona has figured it out.” 

Axios Phoenix reported on Tuesday that Save Our Schools Arizona, a group hostile to private school choice that successfully referred to voters a previous attempt to expand the ESA program, plans to make another attempt to refer this year’s bill the ballot, meaning voters might have the last word on the program’s fate at the November elections.

Robert Clarke

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