Research & Commentary: Arizona’s ESA Program is Significantly Benefitting Low-Income Students

Published January 13, 2020

A November 2019 report from the Goldwater Institute and the American Federation for Children (AFC), the second in a series, details how Arizona’s education savings account (ESA) program, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, is having a tremendous positive impact on education for Arizona’s low-income students.

In Education Savings Accounts Serving Low-Income Communities: The Impact of ESAs in Arizona, Part II, Goldwater and AFC find the average ESA award of $6,166 is enough to cover 100 percent of the median private elementary school tuition and fee rate in the Grand Canyon State, as well as 93 percent of the median middle school tuition and fee rate.

Contrary to the narrative pushed by critics of the program that it disproportionally benefits wealthier families, the report finds ESA students come from “higher poverty” school districts at a nearly identical rate as the state’s traditional neighborhood public schools. Further, the report notes, “the highest concentrations of ESA usage actually occur in the most severely economically disadvantaged communities in Arizona. Among the 10 districts with the highest share of ESA students (as a percentage of each district’s overall student enrollment), eight have higher than average child poverty rates. In fact, the three districts with the highest concentrations of ESA students in the entire state have child poverty rates more than double the state average.”

The report also details the benefits of ESAs for Native Americans, who make use of the program at the highest rate of any demographic. “In contrast to the public school spending amounts that reach up to $16,000 per pupil,” the report states, “the average (non-kindergarten, non-special needs) ESA award for students from Native American reservations totaled just $6,219 in FY 2019, meaning they cost up to $10,000 less per student per year than the surrounding public school systems. Yet even at this substantially lower cost, ESAs provide enough funding to cover up to 100% of tuition costs at nearby private schools, providing students opportunity where often none existed before.”

The first report in the series, The Public School Benefits of Education Savings Accounts: The Impact of ESAs in Arizona, noted how Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, were saving taxpayers thousands of dollars per pupil. Further, Goldwater finds Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are increasing per-pupil public school spending by more than $600 per each student participating in the program. In Fiscal Year 2020, $3 million in savings from this ESA will be used to reconstitute Arizona’s Department of Education IT infrastructure.

“Arizona’s ESA program … has offered thousands of students an additional educational pathway best suited to their needs,” the report concludes. “The nation’s most established ESA program has actually benefitted public schools by redistributing funds back to remaining public school students, directing program savings to public school IT infrastructure, and helping to serve one of the most high-need, high-cost student populations in the state—all while decreasing taxpayer costs and safeguarding public funds.”

Copious other empirical research on ESAs and other school choice initiatives, including in Arizona, finds these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Additionally, ESAs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. 

Research also shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

Based on the academic, fiscal, and societal benefits of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts and other ESA programs, Arizona legislators should offer school choice initiatives to as many children as possible. The goal of public education in Arizona today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information about education savings accounts and education choice.

Education Savings Account Serving Low-Income Communities: The Impact of ESAs in Arizona, Part II
This report by the Goldwater Institute and American Federation for Children captures the extraordinary impact of the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program among Arizona families most in need. The report shows that ESAs put private education within financial reach of even the most economically disadvantaged and turns upside down prior claims that ESAs disproportionately benefit wealthy communities.

The Public School Benefits of Education Savings Accounts: The Impact of ESAs in Arizona
This report from the Goldwater Institute illustrates how the state’s education savings account (ESA) program, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, are good news for Arizona students and their families, Arizona taxpayers, and Arizona public schools. The report finds ESAs provide a customized education to high-need students, giving them more opportunity to succeed, save taxpayers thousands of dollars per enrolled child, and financially benefit K-12 public schools.

Families’ Experiences on the New Frontier of Educational Choice: Findings from a Survey of K–12 Parents in Arizona
Arizona has one of the most robust, diverse school choice environments in the nation, featuring charter schools, a tax-credit scholarship (TCS) program and education savings accounts (ESAs). This EdChoice report surveys approximately 3,500 parents across all educational sectors to learn more about their school climate, satisfaction, levels of parental involvement, schooling preferences, and trusted sources for educational decisions.

Exploring Arizona’s Private Education Sector
This EdChoice report surveys Arizona private school leaders about the state’s educational choice programs, especially its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, as well as their schools’ enrollment capacity, tuition rates, student demographics, and more. This report brings together those results along with U.S. Department of Education data to paint a detailed picture of Arizona’s private education sector.

The Education Debit Card II: What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts
This EdChoice follow-up study examines more data from Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. The program allows families to spend their education dollars on a variety of options, including private tutoring, learning therapies, and more. The report reveals ESA families’ expenditures now and how spending trends have changed since their last report.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom

In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

2018 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent and Teacher Experiences, Accountability, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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