Education Week - April 19, 2017 - 17
Arizona Victory Emboldens School Choice Supporters
Critics play defense
as program expands
By Sarah Tully
School choice supporters already
hope to broaden Arizona's newly expanded education savings account
program that allows any parent to
seek public funds for private schools,
even as teachers and school groups
decry the most expansive such law
in the country.
Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican,
signed the law April 6, opening up
eligibility for the accounts, known as
ESAs, to any of the state's 1.1 million students. In a last-minute compromise, the law capped the number
of students receiving the voucherlike
funds, at about $4,400 per child a
year, to some 30,000 students after
Victor Riches, the president of the
Goldwater Institute, an Arizonabased group that advocates for
school choice nationally, said Arizona's law will be seen as a model as
other states and the federal government seek to expand private-schoolchoice options under President Donald Trump's administration. The
group will seek to lift the cap on Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship
Accounts if there is demand.
"It's a huge issue for Arizona, but
it's also a big issue at the national
level," Riches said. "With the passage
of this bill, Arizona becomes the first
state to have genuine school choice."
But teachers and school groups-
including a group of Teachers of
the Year who met with Ducey on
April 11-criticize the law as snatching money away from public schools
in a state that ranks near the bottom
of school funding nationally-$7,528
per pupil, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2014 figures. Critics
also worry that more-affluent families would use the accounts to partially pay for private schools, which
often charge more than the allocated
amount. Plus, the costs could grow
even higher for special education
In 2011, Arizona became the first
state in the country to approve such
savings accounts, but only for students with disabilities. Since then,
Arizona slowly has expanded the
program to other student groups.
ESA programs are similar to private-school-voucher plans. In ESAs,
states set aside money-pegged in
some way to state per-student funding-in individual accounts so parents can pay for approved expenses.
Traditional voucher programs allocate public funding for students to
attend private schools.
Nevada also had a widely available
ESA program, but the courts struck
down the way it was funded last year.
Efforts to revive it this year have
Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee
also have ESAs, and other states are
trying to launch new ones, including
Missouri, where a bill passed in the
School choice has been the key
education issue at the federal level,
with supporters including Trump
and U.S. Secretary of Education
Betsy DeVos, who congratulated Arizona on the expansion of its program
in a tweet.
After Arizona's law passed in 2011,
critics filed a challenge, but the courts
declared the law constitutional because parents control the money.
Opponents are studying the new
law and weighing their options, said
Timothy Ogle, the executive director
of the Arizona School Boards Association, one of the groups that challenged Arizona's law in 2011. "This is
about privatization," Ogle said. Opponents at least will work to make sure
that the caps stay, Ogle said.
Joe Thomas, the president of the
Arizona Education Association, was
pessimistic about the success of a
"I think these [provisions] have
been so carefully lobbied and carefully crafted that winning in the
courts will be very difficult," he said.
Sen. Bob Worsley, a Republican
who shepherded the compromise bill
that passed, said it would have failed
without the caps. He said they allow
the state to try out a limited program
to see if it improves education.
"We're looking to not kill the public
schools in the process," Worsley said.
"Prove it to me that we want this
product before we go crazy and take
all the caps off."
How It Works
Already, students can obtain ESA
funds if they have disabilities, are in
D- or F-rated schools, receive foster
care, come from military families, or
reside on a Native American reservation. About 3,100 students are enrolled in the program, costing about
$46 million this year, and far below
the eligible number.
Under the new law, a maximum of
about 5,500 new students can join the
program annually. The state's Joint
Legislative Budget Committee estimates it could save the state about
$1.6 million next year because the
per-student amount is slightly less
than what would go to public schools,
although the per-pupil amount for
low-income students is higher.
However, the purported savings are
"highly speculative," according to the
The law fails to outline which students would be given a priority to
receive money if the requests exceed
the cap. The Arizona education department is charged with devising a
Also in the compromise: Students
who receive funds are required to
take one of four tests, such as a statewide assessment. Private schools that
enroll at least 50 students in the ESA
program must publicize results for all
Some Democrats, including Sen.
Steve Farley, believe the law has too
"It's devastating to anybody who
believes in the power of public education," Farley said.
Sen. Debbie Lesko, a Republican
who sponsored the new and previous
legislation, said the law will give parents more options to choose the right
school for their children.
"Their concern is totally inaccurate
and really dramatically overblown if
they think 5,500 students out of 1.1
million students is going to hurt the
public school system," Lesko said. "I
think it's historic for Arizona and also
for the nation."
Coverage of how parents work with
educators, community leaders, and
policymakers to make informed decisions
about their children's education is
supported by a grant from the Walton
Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org.
Education Week retains sole editorial
control over the content of this coverage.
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THURSDAY, APRIL 20, 2017
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EDUCATION WEEK | April 19, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 17