Arizona’s Universal Education Savings Accounts Are a Win for All Students

Beienburg: Every child in the state is now eligible for some $7,000 a year to put toward tutoring, private school tuition, at-home curricula and more

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Arizona students are finally free to pursue the best education of their choice, regardless of their family’s zip code, background or beginnings, through the nation’s most expansive school choice opportunity — the state’s now-universal Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

But perhaps even more important to those outside Arizona, the Grand Canyon State has clearly demonstrated how state lawmakers can lead, in a victory that can be replicated in any of the more than 20 states that have conservative majorities. How?

It takes only a single vote.

Arizona emerged from the 2020 election with a 31-29 conservative majority in the state House of Representatives and a similarly narrow 16-14 majority in the state Senate. Confronted with virtually universal opposition to school choice among the left-wing minority party— and without a lieutenant governor position to break a tie — proponents of expanding the ESA program to nearly every Arizona child had not a single vote to spare to advance this legislation.

Yet, with a call to action from Gov. Doug Ducey in his State of the State address earlier this year, and with an effort spearheaded by House Majority Leader Ben Toma, Arizona turned a loss for ESAs last year into a win — translating a razor-thin margin into the widest victory for students in a generation. The Toma-sponsored legislation, passed on a party-line vote in both chambers — including, critically, the support of three self-described conservative lawmakers who had voted against an even more limited expansion of the ESA program just a year before.

This year, Arizona lawmakers succeeded in building a coalition around funding both public and private education options — investing, in tandem with the ESA expansion, nearly an additional billion dollars in public schools, including over $600 million of ongoing annual funding for public education.

The result: Every Arizona child is now eligible for a roughly $7,000 annual scholarship to put toward tutoring, private school tuition, at-home curricula and more. Any family can take the education dollars that would otherwise go to their child’s public school and use that money to pay for whatever kinds of educational service would best fit their child’s unique needs outside the traditional school system.

Yet even after the Arizona Legislature passed this monumental reform and it was signed into law, Arizona students had to clear an additional hurdle: the threat of a ballot referendum by anti-school choice activists, who sought to gather enough signatures on a petition to suspend the program and prevent parents and children from ever accessing it. But parents, advocates and allies including the Goldwater Institute fought back, and the union-aligned effort failed. Now, ESAs will be a reality for any Arizona family that wants them.

It took 10 years from the time the Goldwater Institute implemented the first ESA program in the state to arrive at universal access for every child this fall. But the decade has borne fruit in the form of a guide for other states to follow. From the parent testimonials of children already using Arizona’s program to the examples of its reach in urban and rural communities alike, other states now have ample evidence that giving families more options actually works. Indeed, citing the success of Arizona’s ESA program, West Virginia passed a nearly universal ESA program this past year — previously having virtually zero school choice options.

It should be no surprise that Arizona ranked near the top of the recent Education Freedom Report Card issued by the Heritage Foundation for its efforts, among other things, to promote school choice — including support for homeschooling, flexibility in allowing parents to choose among private, charter and district schools, and ESAs. 

Now, lawmakers throughout the country must replicate Arizona’s efforts — seeing what the Grand Canyon State has been able to accomplish without a single vote to spare. The futures of too many students are at stake for them to fail. States can, and should, make sure they find that single vote of their own.

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