Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed into law a bill expanding the state’s education savings account (ESA) program to make all schoolchildren in the state eligible to receive an ESA after a multiyear phase-in period, though the number of children allowed to participate in the program will remain capped.
An ESA grants parents access to all or a portion of the funding allocated for their child’s public school education, to use on educational alternatives such as private school tuition, learning therapies, tutoring, or homeschooling textbooks.
Arizona established the nation’s first ESA program in 2011 with its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (EPA). EPAs were initially only for children with special needs, but eligibility was expanded to include other students, including children living on Indian reservations and those with a parent in the armed forces. Approximately 3,300 students participated in the program during the 2016–17 school year.
Phase-In, Participation Cap
Ducey signed Senate Bill 1431 into law in April. SB 1431 “is not as expansive as the original proposal, which would have allowed all 1.1 million public-school students to use the program by 2021,” AZCentral.com reported in April. “Instead, the legislation will allow within several years all students to apply for the program, but limits the number who could become eligible. An estimated 5,500 additional students would be allowed to sign up each year, but no more than about 30,000 could sign up by 2022.”
SB 1431 will grant parents access to 90–100 percent of the money allocated for their child’s public education, depending on family income, with the average ESA being worth $4,400 per year.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has been an outspoken supporter of education choice, tweeted the passage of SB 1431 is a “[b]ig win for students and parents in Arizona.”
‘Still Have Very Strict Limits’
Drew Catt, director of state research and policy analysis at EdChoice, says Arizona’s ESA expansion is a good start but leaves much room for improvement.
“It is wonderful that the state realizes more students should be eligible for the program,” Catt said. “Here at EdChoice, we believe all K–12 students should have the ability not only to choose the learning environment that is best for them but also be able to have the funds to make that choice become a reality.
“While [CB 1431 does] expand the eligibility pool, [the state] still has very strict limits on the number of students who can actually use the program,” Catt said. “Currently, there is a 0.5 percent of the prior year public school’s enrollment cap on the number of new participants. For example, there are currently a little more than 3,500 students participating in the program; however, there can only be an additional 5,000 to 6,000 new students participating over each of the next few years.”
Phase-In to Quell Fears?
Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, says the gradual expansion of the ESA program will prevent the mass exodus many public school supporters fear.
“[The bill] does two things,” Butcher said. “It expands access to the program, but it also phases the program in so that the fears that traditional opponents of education savings accounts have, often [that] public schools will be bankrupt because kids will leave in droves and take money from the public schools, [will be reduced]. This sets it up so that the program kind of paces itself with its own expansion, and so it takes care of that concern.”
Butcher says he’s optimistic the cap will disappear after a few years as more parents realize the value of ESAs.
“If ESAs do as they have been doing, and that is serving the needs of the families using them, [then] there will be families calling for greater access to them, if, for some reason, they don’t fit under the cap,” Butcher said. “I would hope that the accounts would be working so well for the families who use them that other families would say, ‘We want access to this as well.'”
Parents ‘Overwhelmingly Supportive’
Catt says parents across the country recognize the worth of ESAs.
“Through all of our polling work that we’ve done at the national level, and especially at the state level, parents are overwhelmingly supportive and in favor of not just vouchers and tax-credit scholarships but also of ESAs,” Catt said. “They’re usually unfamiliar with them at first, but once they’re given a general description of the program, the favorability jumps even higher.”
Catt says parents love ESAs because they can customize their child’s education.
“ESAs allow parents to pick any type of learning environment for their child, which does include schools, at-home learning, depending on the state, but also tutoring services, and it opens it up for a variety of services that you’re not necessarily going to get at a single brick-and-mortar location,” Catt said. “It does allow you to supplement your child’s current education and see how you can meet that highest level of need for your child. Because you’re their parent, you know what the best fit is for them. You know what they need, and this is a type of program that allows you to make that a possibility.”
‘Laws Can Be Customized’
Butcher says other states should use Arizona’s program as a model they can adapt to suit their political and demographic landscapes.
“These laws can be customized to fit the needs of the states where lawmakers are looking to enact them,” Butcher said. “There are certain things Arizona has done that we’re very proud of that have led the way. There are other states that have taken this idea of flexible education options and been able to make it fit their funding formula and their student population.”
Teresa Mull ([email protected]) is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.
Lindsey Burke and Jonathan Butcher, “Education Savings Accounts: Advancing Choice in States with Blaine Amendments,” October 3, 2016: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/education-savings-accounts-advancing-choice-in-states-with-blaine-amendments?source=policybot