State Policy Network
Arizona Makes History with Nation’s First Universal Private School Choice Program

Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are helping more than 3,000 Arizona students excel in an academic setting that meets their needs. This universal private school choice program is creating new educational opportunities for kids like Jordan Visser, whose cerebal palsey made being in a traditional classroom setting difficult, and Elias Hines, who wasn’t being challenged in his neighborhood school. Aiden and Erin Yellowhair are using an account to leave a gang-infested, failing public school for a college prep school on the Navajo Reservation.

Last week, Arizona lawmakers passed a law that will make this program available to all Arizona school children over time.

What are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts?

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are similar to flexible spending accounts for healthcare, except that instead of depositing money into the account from a paycheck, the state government deposits a child’s share of school funding into the account. If a parent or student decides their assigned public school is not meeting their needs, they can leave the school and instead receive money from the state through an account. These funds pay for alternative education options and expenses.

Parents can choose to spend the funds on private school tuition, classes at another public school outside their district, tutoring, online learning, textbooks, educational therapies, or other education-related services and products. As long as these educational services have been approved by the state, parents can use a combination of the services that best meet their child’s learning needs. Unused funds can often be rolled over from year to year.

Who Qualifies for this Universal Private School Choice Program?

Arizona’s program is currently available to students with special needs, students in failing schools, students from low-income families, students adopted from state foster care, students on Native American reservations, and students with active duty military parents. The new law phases in an expansion that, over time, will include all Arizona school children.

Next year, children entering kindergarten will be eligible for an account, along with students in first, sixth, and ninth grades. In 2018-2019, the law adds students in second, seventh, and tenth grades. The following year, all students in grades first through third and sixth through eleventh are eligible. Students in the remaining grade levels will be eligible in the 2020-2021 school year. New enrollment in the program will be capped at approximately 5,000 students each school year.

Where Did the Idea Come From?

The Goldwater Institute crafted this education policy solution, first recommending in 2005 that lawmakers expand the concepts of HSAs and college savings plans (called 529 accounts) to K-12 expenses. Lawmakers returned to the idea in 2009 when the state Supreme Court ruled school vouchers unconstitutional. Two years later, Arizona became the first state in the country to adopt this unique program. Since then, similar programs have been implemented in Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Nevada lawmakers passed a similar bill for all school children in that state, but it was later thrown out in court. Arizona’s law has already been found constitutional by the state Supreme Court, so there will be no false start here. History has indeed been made.

Jonathan Butcher, education policy director at the Goldwater Institute, sums up why this policy is so popular with parents and lawmakers:

“A great education is a ticket to the American Dream. Every child deserves the chance at an education that will prepare them for a good job, a bright future, and a happy life. But for many children, the odds of attending a good school depend entirely on where they live. Education Savings Accounts change that. They allow parents to put their children in a learning environment that gives them a shot at a better, more successful life.”

This policy is likely to find friends in Washington, too. As the Wall Street Journal reported: “Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last month gave a rousing speech encouraging all flowers of school choice to bloom. Arizona lawmakers put her words into action on Thursday by enacting universal education savings accounts.”

Learn more about how ESAs work and how they are changing lives here.

Policy Issues: K-12 Education
Organization: State Policy Network