– from May 2017 CAPE Outlook

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey made history April 6 when he signed legislation that will eventually extend eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) to every public school student in the state. The pool of eligible students will be phased in by grade level between 2017 and 2020, and the number of new ESA recipients each year will be capped at 0.5 percent of total public school enrollment (about 5,500 students) through 2022, ending in a permanent total cap of roughly 30,000 students. The new law will likely make Arizona the first state to have a fully functioning ESA program to which every student currently enrolled in public school may apply. (Last year Nevada enacted an ESA bill with broad eligibility, but the program was sidetracked when the state supreme court said the funding mechanism violated the state’s constitution.)

National Pioneer 

In 2011, Arizona was the first state in the country to launch an ESA program, which initially served only students with special needs. Over the years it has expanded to include children in failing public schools, in foster care, from military families, or on Indian reservations. Under Arizona’s program, the state deposits funds into accounts that parents can then spend in a variety of ways to help their children learn and develop. Eligible expenditures include private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, educational therapies, and a host of other services to tailor education to the specific needs of the child. The state pays 90 percent of what it would normally pay to the child’s school district or charter school, except in the case of low-income students, when it pays 100 percent. Because of the savings per student, the Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimates the state will decrease expenditures over the next four fiscal years, with an annual savings of $3.4 million in FY 2021. 

Testing Requirements 

The new law requires parents of ESA students enrolled in private schools in grades 3 through 12 to agree to have their child take annually one of the following assessments in reading and mathematics: a norm-referenced test, the statewide assessment, an advanced placement test, or a college admissions test. Tests Arizona Greatly Expands ESA Program may be administered by a participating school or outside of school. If a participating school enrolls 50 or more ESA students, it must make available on its Web site or on request the aggregate scores of all its students on the aforementioned assessments. A network of schools may satisfy the requirements by publishing the scores by grade level of all schools in the network. 

Supporters React 

“When parents have options, students win,” said Governor Ducey about the new law. “I’m incredibly proud to sign this legislation to give all students in Arizona, no matter where they live or what their circumstances are, an education that’s best for them.” The governor also noted, “The quality of a child’s education should not be determined by what neighborhood their parents can afford to live in.” State Senator Debbie Lesko, who championed the bill, talked about the impact the measure will have in the state and across the nation: “This next generation of school choice will empower parents and children, not only in Arizona, but throughout the country, for today Arizona once again exerts its leadership as the education innovation catalyst for America. States across the country have followed our lead on school choice and they will now also follow our lead on providing families with true educational freedom.” Bill Oberndorf, chairman of the American Federation for Children, which strongly supported the measure, said the group was thankful that the governor had “handed every parent in Arizona the ability to truly customize their own child’s education.” He added, “No longer will students be trapped in any one school as parents will have greater opportunities to seek the best education for their children.” Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said: “This is an historic moment for the state of Arizona, its families, and most importantly the generations of students who will benefit from the power of finding the right educational option for their unique needs.” Even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos joined the chorus of praise. In a tweet sent out the night the bill was signed, she wrote: “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @ DougDucey for putting kids first.”