Watershed moment: Arizona passes statewide school choice, opening scholarship program to more than a million students

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“[The new law] puts the parents in control. The parents have all the power. They are consumers now — and they’re pretty good consumers. And what they’re going to do is what’s in the best interest of their child, and now, they can take action when necessary.”

–Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey

Arizona passed legislation last week that will expand its booming Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program so that all K-12 students across the state are eligible to participate, even as the nation debates school choice amid parental conflict with public schools.


Quick Facts


Arizona has long been on the forefront of the school choice movement. It enacted the nation’s first tax-credit scholarship program in 1997, and in 2011 it became the first state to implement an education savings account scholarship program. Education savings accounts allow parents to take their child out of public school and receive funds that can be used for approved educational alternatives such as private school tuition, tutoring, and other academic sources. Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts specifically allows parents to use the funds private school tuition, online education, or tutoring and to apply any leftovers to future educational needs.

With this latest effort, Arizona will increase ESA eligibility from approximately 25 percent of K-12 students to 100 percent of students. Under HB2853, more than 1 million students will be able to use the funds on tuition at out-of-district public schools and charter schools, as well as private schools. It also allows students to use funds on electronic devices and commuter services.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, R, said, “This policy can transform our state.” He added, “I think if other governors follow suit, it can transform our country. K-12 education has been flatlining for decades. And this is the innovative improvement that will take it to the level we expect so that our kids get a great education in math, reading, science, American civics, and character formation.”

Corey DeAngelis, senior fellow at American Federation for Children, said, “Arizona is now the gold standard for school choice. Every other state should follow Arizona’s lead and fund students instead of systems.”

Ducey said the bill lets parents “vote with their feet.”

He explained that the new law “puts the parents in control. The parents have all the power. They are consumers now — and they’re pretty good consumers. And what they’re going to do is what’s in the best interest of their child, and now, they can take action when necessary.”

The state’s ESA program has been highly successful, although critics argue that the monies provided primarily benefit students from wealthy families at the expense of low-income students. Data, however, shows these accusations to be false.

The Goldwater Institute found that students using ESAs come from low-income and high-income districts at approximately the same proportion as found in public schools. In addition, Goldwater showed that 8 out of 10 districts with the highest concentration of students using ESAs had high poverty rates. In fact, the three districts with the highest proportion of students using ESAs had a poverty rate double the state’s average.

Those same three school districts also had far higher per pupil funding than the average Arizona school, yet the districts largely had failing schools.

Goldwater’s findings show that the ESA program gives students in failing districts access to better schools. The average non-kindergarten, non-special needs ESA funding is $6,166, greater than the median cost of private elementary school tuition, 90 percent of the median private middle school tuition, and about $4,000 less than the median private high school tuition. Meanwhile, the average per pupil spending at public schools is $9,929 with the amount rising to over $16,000 all of the three aforementioned poverty-stricken districts.

The report found that it costs less money for students to leave bad school districts than to stay. Taking students out of those school districts hasn’t shown any sign of harming the districts. In fact, the public school keeps $600 of the per pupil funding despite no longer having to instruct them. Arizona’s schools, far from suffering, have led the nation in gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress over the past two decades.

The legislation comes just after the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Carson v. Makin, which held that states that offer school choice tuition assistance programs cannot bar religious schools from participating.

Arizona’s success with school choice proves what school choice advocates have contended for years: Greater school choice helps students. Arizona’s decision to expand school choice to all students across the state is a win for parents and for students. The public school system has been shown to not only be ideological but it is increasingly ineffective at educating students in basic academic skills and increasingly hostile towards parents who demand transparency and accountability.

Monopolies are always destructive because they exert unnatural control over the free market, squash competition, and result in bad products and services at an inflated price. Allowing the government to have a monopoly on education has led it to grow lazy, arrogant, entitled, and ridiculously expensive.

All states should follow Arizona’s lead and expand school choice to all families with school age children. This will not only save taxpayers money rather than forcing them to pay more to fund underachieving schools, but it will also persuade public schools to work significantly harder to improve their own educational products if they are going to retain students. All in all, it’s a win for everybody.

Proverbs 18:15, NASB1995, says, “The mind of the prudent acquires knowledge, And the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.”

Students should seek knowledge where they can find it, and this bill allows them to do just that, whether it be through a better public school, a private school, online programs, tutoring, or other academic sources.

Parents are not obligated, biblically or morally, to prop up lazy, failing schools at the cost of their children’s future and for the good of the teachers’ unions. Their obligation, as Christians, parents, and free citizens, is to seek and obtain the best education possible for their children, and if they find that opportunity outside of their local school district, then that is exactly where their children should go.