Arizona Bill to Expand Scholarship Account Program Fails to Pass House

Published May 6, 2016

An Arizona bill to expand eligibility for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program passed the state’s Senate but failed to pass the House before the session ended.

Arizona’s ESA program provides students with $5,400 per year to use on education. It currently benefits students with disabilities; those attending public schools rated D or F by the state’s ranking system; students who have been adopted through the foster care system; those living on Native American reservations; students with active-duty military parents; and children whose parents were killed in the line of duty in the military.

Senate Bill 1279 sought to expand ESA eligibility by extending qualification to all students who meet the family income eligibility requirements for free or reduced-price lunches, after a three-year phase-in period.

Public School Leaders’ Worries

SB 1279 is a revised version of legislation presented by the primary sponsor, state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria), earlier in the session to expand ESA eligibility by the 2018–19 school year to any child who attends a public school in grades K–12.

Public school leaders have expressed concern over a potential mass exodus from government schools if the ESA program is expanded. The program currently allows only 0.5 percent of the state’s students, or about 5,500 students total, to join each year, but SB 1279 would lift that cap in 2019.

“If public schools are going to go out of business because half a percent of all the students are leaving, … they have bigger problems than Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,” Lesko said.

Helping the Disadvantaged

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, says expanding eligibility for ESAs would give options to those who aren’t getting what they need in public schools.

“I think the program helps children [who] are disadvantaged and need it most,” Butcher said. “It would be a tremendous help for them. We should be giving parents the ability to make a choice between what their district offers and using an ESA.”

Lesko says she sent her children to traditional public schools but knows from experience the importance of choice.

“When my daughter was going to school, there was a boy who was being bullied, terribly bullied, so his mother took him out of the public school and homeschooled him,” Lesko said. “Every once in a while you have situations like that, where the student could use this money for online education or tutoring or that type of thing. Not all children thrive in a public school setting.

“ESAs give parents and students [who] are struggling in the traditional settings another choice to improve the education for their children, and that’s why it’s so important,” Lesko said. “The bottom line is to improve education.”

Mary Tillotson ([email protected]) writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.