Arizona opts for school choice

Recently, the Arizona Legislature passed a school choice bill that will grant students K–12 eligibility to sign up for an Empowerment Scholarship Account.  In addition, the bill allows for students, regardless of income brackets, to receive an annual education voucher of $6,000.  These vouchers will cover educational tutoring, school supply costs, and private school tuition.  Arizona governor Doug Ducey signed the legislation into law on July 7, saying, "Today, we're unlocking a whole new world of opportunity for them and their parents."

In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, Governor Ducey laid out his vision for education in Arizona.  As an advocate for school choice, he explained how important this new law would be for families.  "[This bill] puts the parents in control.  The parents have all the power.  They are consumers now — and they're pretty good consumers," Ducey continued.  "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."

HB2583 passed the Arizona House on a straight party-line vote as only Republican lawmakers backed the bill.  The Empowerment Scholarship Accounts were established in 2013 by former governor Jan Brewer and gave access to around 12,000 Arizona students.  The new law will expand access to over 1.1 million students.  An analysis of the bill shows that about 25,000 Arizona students will now be able to use the expanded program.  On average, an ESA will spend around $6,400 per family.

Although teachers' unions critique school choice programs as costly to taxpayers, Arizona's ESA program saves taxpayers money.  A 2021 report produced by EdChoice, a non-profit school choice organization, shows that school choice programs have saved taxpayers between $12.4 billion and $27.7 billion from 2011 to 2018.  That comes to about $7,500 per student in a school choice program.  In addition, the Arizona Department of Education will receive $2.2 million, which will hire as many as 26 educators for the ESA expansion.

Liberal critics of the ESA claim that the money produced will primarily benefit students of wealthy families while families of poor students will pay the cost.  The data show otherwise.  A study from the Goldwater Institute found that students who use ESAs are proportionally represented across income levels.  Furthermore, the study showed that eight out of ten districts with the most ESA students have high poverty.  The study shows that students in failed communities get access to better schools with ESA, concluding that it is cheaper for students to leave bad schools than to keep them there.

Arizona's campaign for universal school choice has received national praise from school choice advocates across the country.  Former secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised the passage of the ESA bill as "groundbreaking."  "I am very excited for what this can mean for families there, many of whom have continued to struggle and/or be frustrated following the last couple of years and their experiences in their assigned school."  Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, now hails Arizona as the "gold standard" for education in the U.S.  He went farther in an interview with Maine's leading free-enterprise think-tank, Maine Wire: "Every other state should follow Arizona's lead and fund students instead of systems.  Education funding is meant for educating children, not for protecting a particular institution.  School choice is the only way to truly secure parental rights in education."

Ducey is encouraging other states to follow the example set by the Grand Canyon State: "Arizona is proud to be a trendsetter in educational excellence and freedom."  States including Iowa, Florida, and Texas continue to float the idea of universal choice programs in their legislatures.  The late iconic conservative economist Milton Friedman saw school choice as a necessary step in educational freedom as he popularized school choice in his book Free to Choose.  "Our goal is to have a system in which every family in the U.S. will be able to choose for itself the school to which its children go," said Friedman in a 2003 speech.  With the expansion of ESA, Arizona is leading on educational equality for all Americans.

Image: Gage Skidmore.

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