Arizona Victory Emboldens School Choice Supporters
Critics play defense as program expands
School choice supporters already hope to broaden Arizona's newly expanded education savings account program that allows any parent to seek public funds for private schools, even as teachers and school groups decry the most expansive such law in the country.
Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed the law April 6, opening up eligibility for the accounts, known as ESAs, to any of the state's 1.1 million students. In a last-minute compromise, the law capped the number of students receiving the voucherlike funds, at about $4,400 per child a year, to some 30,000 students after 2022.
Victor Riches, the president of the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based group that advocates for school choice nationally, said Arizona's law will be seen as a model as other states and the federal government seek to expand private-school-choice options under President Donald Trump's administration. The group will seek to lift the cap on Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Accounts if there is demand.
"It's a huge issue for Arizona, butit's also a big issue at the national level," Riches said. "With the passage of this bill, Arizona becomes the first state to have genuine school choice."
But teachers and school groups—including a group of Teachers of the Year who met with Ducey on April 11—criticize the law as snatching money away from public schools in a state that ranks near the bottom of school funding nationally—$7,528 per pupil, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2014 figures. Critics also worry that more-affluent families would use the accounts to partially pay for private schools, which often charge more than the allocated amount. Plus, the costs could grow even higher for special education students.
In 2011, Arizona became the first state in the country to approve such savings accounts, but only for students with disabilities. Since then, Arizona slowly has expanded the program to other student groups.
ESA programs are similar to private-school-voucher plans. In ESAs, states set aside money—pegged in some way to state per-student funding—in individual accounts so parents can pay for approved expenses. Traditional voucher programs allocate public funding for students to attend private schools. Nevada also had a widely available ESA program, but the courts struck down the way it was funded last year. Efforts to revive it this year have faced resistance.
Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee also have ESAs, and other states are trying to launch new ones, including Missouri, where a bill passed in the Senate.
School choice has been the key education issue at the federal level, with supporters including Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who congratulated Arizona on the expansion of its program in a tweet.
After Arizona's law passed in 2011, critics filed a challenge, but the courts declared the law constitutional because parents control the money.
Opponents are studying the new law and weighing their options, said Timothy Ogle, the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, one of the groups that challenged Arizona's law in 2011. "This is about privatization," Ogle said. Opponents at least will work to make sure that the caps stay, Ogle said.
Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, was pessimistic about the success of a challenge.
"I think these [provisions] have been so carefully lobbied and carefully crafted that winning in the courts will be very difficult," he said. Sen. Bob Worsley, a Republican who shepherded the compromise bill that passed, said it would have failed without the caps. He said they allow the state to try out a limited program to see if it improves education.
"We're looking to not kill the public schools in the process," Worsley said. "Prove it to me that we want this product before we go crazy and take all the caps off."
How It Works
Already, students can obtain ESA funds if they have disabilities, are in D- or F-rated schools, receive foster care, come from military families, or reside on a Native American reservation. About 3,100 students are enrolled in the program, costing about $46 million this year, and far below the eligible number.
Under the new law, a maximum of about 5,500 new students can join the program annually. The state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimates it could save the state about $1.6 million next year because the per-student amount is slightly less than what would go to public schools, although the per-pupil amount for low-income students is higher.
However, the purported savings are "highly speculative," according to the committee.
The law fails to outline which students would be given a priority to receive money if the requests exceed the cap. The Arizona education department is charged with devising a system.
Also in the compromise: Students who receive funds are required to take one of four tests, such as a statewide assessment. Private schools that enroll at least 50 students in the ESA program must publicize results for all their students.
Some Democrats, including Sen. Steve Farley, believe the law has too little accountability.
"It's devastating to anybody who believes in the power of public education," Farley said.
Sen. Debbie Lesko, a Republican who sponsored the new and previous legislation, said the law will give parents more options to choose the right school for their children.
"Their concern is totally inaccurate and really dramatically overblown if they think 5,500 students out of 1.1 million students is going to hurt the public school system," Lesko said. "I think it's historic for Arizona and also for the nation."
Vol. 36, Issue 28, Page 17Published in Print: April 19, 2017, as Arizona Victory Emboldens School Choice Supporters