Research & Commentary: Bills Expanding Eligibility to ESA Program and Lexie’s Law All Help Provide Great Education Options for Arizona Children

Published February 5, 2021

The Arizona Legislature has seen a flurry of school choice legislation introduced this session that could provide tremendous help to families looking for better educational options for their children.

Three bills involve expanding the scope of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account Program, the nation’s first education savings account (ESA) program. In the Senate, SB 1452 would open the program up to students from low-income families or students who attend a district public school that has a high percentage of low-income students. Meanwhile, SB 1513 would open the program up to the children of first responders, health care workers, and military veterans.

In the House of Representatives, HB 2503 would expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program to include students who have been the victims of bullying or assault on school grounds, at a school-sponsored event, on a school bus, at a bus stop, or have been harassed electronically from a school computer, network, forum, or mailing list.

This is important, as 18.2 percent of Arizona high school students were bullied on school property in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. Another 13.4 percent were the victims of cyberbullying, while 6.7 percent of students were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and 14.4 percent of students reported skipping school due to concerns for their safety.

Another piece of Senate legislation, SB 1041 would increase the budget cap of Lexie’s Law for Disabled and Displaced Students Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which give choices options to students with special needs or were adopted through the state’s foster care system, to $20 million. The current cap is set at $5 million. This bill has already passed the Arizona Senate and now awaits a vote in the House of representatives.   

A 2019 report from the Goldwater Institute found students making use of the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program 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.”

Another Goldwater Institute report from 2019 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.

“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 school choice programs such as ESAs  and tax-credit scholarships finds they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment and deliver a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools. Additionally, these programs 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.

It is probably for these reasons, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling done by EdChoice released in December 2020 found 81 percent support for ESAs among the general public and 86 percent among current school parents, the highest level of support the program has received in the organization’s eight years of polling on the issue. This represents a 4-percentage point increase over 2019. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s seventh-annual National School Choice Poll, released in January 2021, which saw 78 percent support for ESA programs. 

The goal of public education in the Grand Canyon State 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. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and more needed than right now. Legislators should recognize that and allow families as many options as possible to get their children the education they need and deserve.

The following documents provide more information on education savings accounts and school 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.

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.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

The Effects of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program on College Enrollment and Graduation: An Update
In this update to a 2017 Urban Institute study, authors Matthew Chingos, Tomas Monarrez, and Daniel Kuehn find students participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program are 99 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college, and 56 percent more likely to graduate, than their public school peers.

The Effects of Statewide Private School Choice on College Enrollment and Graduation: Evidence from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
This study from Urban Institute scholars Matthew Chingos and Daniel Kuehn shows Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program boosted college enrollment for participating students by 15 percent, with students enrolled in the program for four or more years seeing a 46 percent hike.

Fiscal Effects of School Vouchers: Examining the Savings and Costs of America’s Private School Voucher Programs
In this EdChoice study, Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Martin F. Lueken examined the fiscal impact of voucher programs across America—from their inception through fiscal year 2015—to determine whether they generated costs or savings for state and local taxpayers. Lueken found these programs generated cumulative net savings to state and local budgets of $3.2 billion. This represents a $3,400 savings per voucher recipient.


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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