| June 8, 2012

Arizona Expands the Nation’s Most Innovative School-Choice Model

Imagine being a child trapped in a failing school in Arizona. Prior to 2011, being trapped in a failing school in Arizona meant being trapped in a failing school in a state that ranks among the worst performing in the country.

But during 2011—the “Year of School Choice”—Arizona led the way in expanding educational options for children outside of the public system. And the Grand Canyon State did so in a major way: by enacting groundbreaking, first-in-the-nation education savings accounts.
Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) enable parents of special-needs children to leave their assigned public schools, taking with them 90 percent of the state dollars that the schools would have received for their children. That money, deposited into ESAs, can then be used to access a multitude of education options that better meet their children’s needs. Funds can be used to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services, transportation, and a variety of other education-related expenditures.

Notably, unused ESA funds can be “rolled over” from year to year and can even be invested into 529 college savings accounts. The introduction of ESAs in Arizona has been a tremendous step toward educational customization.

Last month, thanks to the leadership of Republican Governor Jan Brewer, the pioneering ESAs were expanded to thousands of additional children throughout the state. Children trapped in schools rated “D” or “F,” children of active-duty military parents, and foster children now have access to ESAs. Thanks to last month’s expansion, 11,500 children of active-duty military families and more than 94,000 students in failing public schools will be eligible for ESAs.

Education researcher Matthew Ladner, author of the 2010 report “Reforms with Results: What Oklahoma Can Learn from Florida’s K-12 Education Revolution” (co-published by OCPA), notes that

The law also moves to a system of formula funding, making it one of the largest private choice laws in the nation with funded eligibility, behind only the new Indiana and Louisiana voucher laws on a percentage basis. The Arizona program now resembles an expanded combination of the Florida McKay and Opportunity Scholarship programs with the 21st-century twist of broadening the options of parents and requiring the consideration of opportunity costs (what you spend now cannot be saved for later).

Gov. Brewer’s ESA expansion is another milestone in the ongoing effort among states to provide children educational options outside of their assigned public schools. Years from now, Arizona will be heralded as the state that led the way on truly customizable education that is structured in a way that empowers parents and designed to meet the unique learning needs of individual students.

Lindsey Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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