This July, Arizona became the first state to embrace universal school choice by enacting legislation that allows all students to participate in the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA). Approximately 12,000 students currently enroll in the ESA program, which deposits 90 percent of the state’s share of per-pupil education funds—about $7,000 per child—into an account that parents can use for various educational costs. Qualified expenses include: private school tuition, micro-schooling, homeschooling, tutoring, and online classes. Previously, the ESA program limited student eligibility to, for example, kids with disabilities, children attending failing public schools, children of active-duty military parents, foster children, and siblings of current or former ESA participants. With the new law, an estimated 60,000 students currently enrolled in private schools and 38,000 homeschooled students are immediately eligible for ESA funding, and 1.1 million children attending district and charter schools have the option to get funding as well.
School-choice foes gathered signatures to introduce a November 2024 ballot initiative to invalidate the legislation. On September 24, one day before the law expanding the ESA was to take effect, the organization behind that effort, “Save Our Schools Arizona,” temporarily blocked the expansion by filing what they jubilantly claimed were 141,700 signatures supporting the ballot initiative—a number well over the 118,800 required. A few days later, Save Our Schools Arizona confessed error, acknowledging that it had fallen far short of this number. As a result, the program became effective on Friday, September 30. Demand for ESA funding is so high that the Arizona Department of Education has extended the application deadline by two weeks and reports that funding requests may take several months to complete because of the large number of applications.
School-choice proponents have accused Save Our Schools Arizona of dishonestly obstructing the ESA expansion by claiming to have sufficient signatures. Save Our Schools Arizona denies the allegations, claiming that it was impossible to tally the signatures at the last minute. “I think we will end up short, yes,” admitted Beth Lewis, the group’s executive director. “Our counts were necessarily estimates.” (This assertion is in tension with the numerical specificity provided when the group submitted the signatures.)
Though the ballot-initiative effort fell short, it demonstrates the intensity of the opposition to expanding the ESA program. Seething about the prospect of universal school choice in Arizona, opponents have characterized the new law as a radical effort to “kill public education” and the “nail in the coffin” of public schools. They argue that letting parents redirect education funds to non-public schooling options will worsen inequalities by draining much-needed resources away from underfunded district public schools.
These arguments are as incorrect as they are predictable. Expanding ESA eligibility does not drain resources from public schools but rather sensibly permits public funding to follow children to the school of their choice. Arizona’s already-expansive school choice options have the same effect. Moreover, empowering parents to determine how to spend the funds allocated for their children’s education makes it more likely that the money will be spent on kids’ unique educational needs, not on the administrative overhead that consumes far too many resources in public schools.
While Arizona is the first state to embrace universal school choice, the ESA expansion is consistent with a national trend toward expanding educational options for families. Last year, for example, several other states extended eligibility for private-school-choice programs to more, half, or most residents. And even before its new law, Arizona already provided the most expansive school-choice options in the United States. In addition to the ESA program, the state operates three programs that provide a one-to-one tax credit for donations to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. Together, these three scholarship-tax-credit programs enable approximately 90,000 children to attend private schools in the state. In addition, more than 213,000 Arizona students—or nearly 20 percent of the state’s public school enrollment—attended one of the state’s 560 charter schools. (Nationwide, only 7 percent of public school students attend a charter school.) Arizona also has an open-enrollment policy for district public schools, which lets students apply to attend any school in the state—free of charge—based on available classroom space.
Is the ESA expansion “radical”? Yes, it is—a radical step in the right direction. The American education system is an irrational, jerry-rigged apparatus, the result of countless ad hoc institutional decisions (for example, the haphazard consolidation of school districts in the early twentieth century); of our shameful history of anti-Catholicism (which cemented the practice of funding only government-operated schools in the nineteenth century); and, more recently, of the rise of charter schools (an important addition to the previously monolithic public-education landscape, though they were partly motivated, at least at the outset, by a desire to ward off private school choice).
The expansion of Arizona’s ESA will rationalize the state’s public education system, not destroy it. Arizona will soon become the first state in the nation to align its system of education funding with international norms. As Ashley Berner has ably documented, most other countries, in both the developed and developing world, fund a variety of school types—public and private, religious and secular—pairing government funding with accountability requirements. Moreover, by making public education funds fully portable and eliminating arbitrary and complex ESA eligibility criteria, Arizona will take a much-needed step toward addressing educational inequities, both by decoupling schooling options from a child’s residential address and by subjecting district public schools to more competition—which, according to many studies, improves their academic performance. By entrusting parents with the decisions about their children’s education, the state will stimulate authentic educational pluralism and encourage the development of more schooling options to serve kids’ diverse educational needs.
We should all hope that other states follow Arizona’s radically sensible decision to embrace universal school choice.
Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post