In Arizona’s Historic ESA Expansion, a Blueprint for Educational Freedom

Matt Beienburg: Gov. Ducey is set to sign universal expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program to every K-12 student in Arizona

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Arizona is blazing the way forward with educational freedom and curriculum transparency. 

In January 2022, Governor Doug Ducey called on state lawmakers to pass the most robust school choice and curriculum transparency legislation in the country. As he declared in his state of the state address, “Send me the bills, and I’ll sign them.” In just the few short months since, state lawmakers have delivered a historic victory for school choice and cleared the path for the nation’s most powerful academic transparency law. 

Indeed, this week the governor is set to sign into law a universal expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, extending eligibility to every single K-12 student in the state.

Created by the Goldwater Institute over a decade ago, Arizona’s ESA program allows participating families to take a portion of what state taxpayers would have spent educating the child in a public school and instead use those funds (approximately $7,000 per child) for any educational need, whether private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring or curriculum resources for home-based learners, and more. 

Arizona’s ESA program has exploded from serving just over 100 students in 2011 to more than 11,000 by 2022. For years, participating families have shared personal testimonies with state leaders of the transformative impact the ESA program has had on their children’s lives. As one mom declared to state board of education members in 2020: “I am a parent of three children on ESA, but I also have a master’s degree in elementary education, and ESA has saved the educational lives of my three children.”

Throughout these years, however, access to the ESA program has been limited to fewer than one in four Arizona public school students, with eligibility restricted to children with special needs or families serving in the military, among others. 

Then came the pandemic. 

As parents found their children ejected en masse from schools during COVID — even as public schools scored an additional $200 billion in free funding from Washington, D.C. — Arizona lawmakers floated proposals each of the past two years to expand eligibility for the state’s ESA program and offer a lifeline to families beyond the public school system. Sponsored by state Senator Paul Boyer, proposed legislation would have extended ESA eligibility to students from certain Title I schools with the highest concentrations of child poverty. Despite the massive learning losses recorded among low-income kids as a direct result of public school COVID policies, though, union-backed lawmakers continued to block these attempts at expanding the program. 

This past month, however, the dam finally broke. HB 2853 — sponsored by Representative Ben Toma — secured enough support to clear the full state legislature, bringing ESA eligibility to every K-12 student in the state and vaulting Arizona back into the top spot nationwide for educational freedom. 

Opponents have once again pledged to fight against ESA expansion, and state lawmakers still have to notch the final win for academic transparency in 2023 after SB 1211, which would require public schools to disclose online all instructional materials being used in their classrooms, also cleared the state senate and came just a single vote short of final passage in the house. 

But in both cases, one can see a growing consensus among Arizona lawmakers that meaningful reforms are needed by families across the state, and that now is the time for greater educational freedom and academic transparency for students across the nation. 

Matt Beienburg is director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy and director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute

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