School Choice & Charters

Arizona Victory Emboldens School Choice Supporters

By Sarah Tully — April 18, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Pathbreaker

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.”

Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Arizona Victory Emboldens School Choice Supporters

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Can Data-Driven Instructional Programming Promote Equity and Student Achievement?
By now, you’ve started the new school year and begun gathering new academic data on your learners from interim, summative, and perhaps even social and emotional learning (SEL) assessment sources. These data points help you
Content provided by ACT
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Opinion What Do Parents Look for When Choosing a School?
New polling sheds light on what a nationally representative sample of parents had to say on this question this summer.
2 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters Virtual Charters in Hot Water Again. Accusations of Fraud Prompt $150M Lawsuit
Indiana officials seek to recoup more than $150 million they say was either wrongly obtained or misspent by a consortium of virtual schools.
Arika Herron, The Indianapolis Star
2 min read
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis. Rokita filed a lawsuit against a group of online charter schools accused of defrauding the state out of millions of dollars Thursday, July 8, 2021.
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis.
Darron Cummings/AP
School Choice & Charters How the Pandemic Helped Fuel the Private School Choice Movement
State lawmakers got a new talking point as they pushed to create and expand programs to send students to private schools.
8 min read
Collage showing two boys in classroom during pandemic wearing masks with cropped photo of feet and arrows going in different directions.
Collage by Gina Tomko/EducationWeek (Images: Getty)
School Choice & Charters Opinion Taking Stock After 30 Years of Charter Schools
Rick Hess speaks with Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, on charter schools turning 30.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty