Sixteen thousand more Arizona children can get double the money in personal K-12 savings accounts thanks to a law signed this summer by Gov. Jan Brewer.
“Gov. Brewer has long championed school choice as a top education priority for the state,” said Ann Dockendorff, Brewer’s spokeswoman. “The governor sees these accounts as a valuable tool to expand educational opportunities for children with disabilities or unique needs.”
Education savings accounts (ESAs) give parents control over their child’s state education funds by depositing them into an audited account they control. They can use the money for any eligible education expense, such as books, tutoring, tuition, or therapy, and can roll money over year to year all the way into college tuition.
“The funding from these programs is in the hands of the parents, who are most capable of making critical education decisions for their children,” Dockendorff said.
Senate Bill 1363 almost didn’t pass. State Sen. Barbara McGuire (D-Copper Basin) resurrected the bill on the last day of session after it had previously failed by one vote on the Senate floor.
“My vote for SB 1363 also gives Democrats a seat at the school choice table,” McGuire said. “Like it or not, school choice is already here in Arizona and school choice is gaining serious momentum across the country.”
Kindergartners slated to attend a public school rated D or F are now eligible for the school choice program, and funding has increased from 90 percent of a district’s state money to 90 percent of state per-pupil charter school funding. That means each child can receive approximately $6,000 per year. Special-needs children can receive more, depending on their disability.
Previous funds of $3,000 per year weren’t enough to give parents of non-special-needs children that many education options, said bill sponsor Sen. Rick Murphy (R-Peoria). Each year, Arizona taxpayers pay an average of $8,000 for each student attending traditional public schools.
“Currently, for every 1,000 traditional students that use an ESA, the state saves $5.7 million,” McGuire said. “It will be less savings [under] SB 1363 [because the bill increases the ESA amount], but still a savings to the state. So scare tactics predicting the collapse of the Arizona public schools because of this program are unfair and misleading to parents.”
The bill also gradually lifts the annual enrollment cap.
Military dependents, foster children, special needs children, and children zoned into a public school rated D or F can receive an Arizona ESA. A fifth of Arizona’s schoolchildren, or approximately 200,000, are eligible.
“The program is designed specifically to aid the state’s most vulnerable kids,” McGuire said. “When kids start life with tough breaks like these, shouldn’t we help those children succeed in their education? The answer is yes.”
Although some national school choice groups pushed to require a nationally norm-referenced test for participating students, and a small faction of Republican legislators wanted to see similar provisions enacted, Murphy says that’s not necessary.
“I agreed to include the so-called accountability provisions with the exception of a testing requirement. I don’t think a testing requirement is necessary because parents are the accountability. You either trust them to make good choices for their child or you don’t,” Murphy said. “The majority of private schools already provide a nationally norm-referenced test. In the rare schools that don’t, it’s probably because the parents don’t see it as valuable and haven’t demanded it, and it shouldn’t be forced on them.”
Transparency built into education law, or any public law, is crucial for long-term success and public freedom, said Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank.
“You are giving parents and taxpayers money to use on their child’s education, and if you do that and do not ask that there be some demonstration of how those students are performing, you’re just giving money away,” Butcher said. “So we should look at public policy in this respect as we would look at a private contractor the government would hire—ensure that people are good stewards of public money.”
Small Program, Big Effect
School choice opponents argued the bill would financially damage public schools. McGuire didn’t buy that argument.
“Last year 302 children used Empowerment Scholarship Accounts statewide, and that number may double or even triple this coming school year,” McGuire said. “Even so, that is still such a small number of ESA recipients, it has no chance of impacting public schools in the least. What it does affect is the lives of those 1,000 or so children who will be finally receiving an education that best fits their needs.”
Brewer will continue to support school choice legislation that “keeps the power with parents, not bureaucrats” like SB 1363, Dockendorff said.
“I’m grateful that Gov. Brewer signed the bill,” Murphy said. “Many more families will have another meaningful education option for their children. Arizona has maintained its place as the leading state for school choice in America.”
Image by USDA. This article has been amended to include quotes from Sen. McGuire.