Arizona governor Doug Ducey is brimming with optimism. The businessman-turned-politician has spent the past eight years campaigning for universal school choice—and he has finally achieved it. Today, the governor is hosting the signing ceremony for H.B. 2853, which will provide every family in Arizona with an “empowerment scholarship account” (ESA) and an annual $7,000 per child to take to any educational institution of their choice, including private schools, religious schools, and homeschool programs.
I first met the governor last year at a retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where, in between firing rifle and pistol rounds at the shooting range, he spoke with me at length about the Founding Fathers, his own Jesuit education, the threat of critical race theory, and his vision for school reform. The governor had tried to pass universal school choice last summer but came up short by one vote in the legislature. This year, after rallying parents and negotiating with legislators, he has his redemption. Universal school choice has long been the Holy Grail for conservative education reformers. Governor Ducey has achieved it.
I spoke with the governor as he prepared to lead the signing ceremony for this historic victory. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Christopher Rufo: Last year, we met in Jackson Hole and spoke about the deeper purpose of education. What are your first principles when it comes to education policy?
Governor Doug Ducey: The vision that the Founders had around education was the development of a good citizen. And so much of that is in the values and the principles that students learn in school. We’ve seen much of that driven out of traditional K-12 education. The first law that I passed was the American Civics Act. That was to bring civics back to the classroom because we found that if you’re not testing something in K-12, it’s simply not being taught. We were the first state to pass it and we’ve now seen 30 other states follow suit. Then seeing the informed patriotism that is happening in so many of our schools of choice in Arizona—places like the Great Hearts Academy and the BASIS schools network—told me that we need an innovation in our traditional model. We have to break up the cartel that is not teaching our kids things of value around math, reading, and science, or the actual skills of being a good future citizen. That was the real genesis in terms of what can be different in education. And that’s why I’m a huge fan of the educational savings accounts. It puts parents in charge of their child’s education, and it brings some of the market principles to bear that provide higher quality at lower cost, with greater return on investment. This will make for happier children.
Rufo: You’ve been working on this issue for eight years, and your state has now become the first in the nation to pass universal school choice. How did it all come together?
Ducey: This is the issue that animated my running for governor. I believed in this idea. I think this can transform K-12 education. It took all of eight years to get here. Part of it is that we’re in the persuasion business: you have to win over public sentiment; you have to win over legislators to these ideas. There’s an axiom that “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” After eight years, there are some threadbare relationships, but this was so important and, as a sitting governor, you do have a certain amount of power— and I intended to use it all. This year, I simply told my team that I was not going to sign the budget until we were able to get this. It took a lot of one-on-one meetings, a lot of phone calls, a lot of lunches and conversations. But we finally got to a majority in both the House and the Senate, and it’s something we’re incredibly excited to sign, something we’re proud that Arizona is leading on.
Rufo: How much did Covid lockdowns, critical race theory, and gender ideology change public perception around education and help pave the way for universal school choice?
Ducey: Covid changed everything in K-12 education. Parents were able to see what their children were being taught via Zoom videos. They were also able to see the lack of rigor and expectation in these classrooms. They saw this pervasive CRT that’s been discovered in so many different districts. And parents were rejecting that, along with the heavy-handed mandates around vaccines and masking, while they saw little to no focus on math, reading, science, character formation, or American civics. We had a lot of parents who were not politically engaged, or had been sitting on the sidelines, saying, “I want to have a say in what happens in my children’s education.” We had an African-American lady, Janelle Wood, who started micro-schools. She sat next to my wife, Angela, at the State of the State address, when I told the body: “Fifty years ago, politicians stood in the schoolhouse door and wouldn’t let minorities in. Today, union-backed politicians stand in the schoolhouse door and won’t let minorities out.” These kids are trapped in failing public schools. It’s time to set these families free. That’s not a Republican idea. That’s an American idea, that we all have equal opportunity and we should have that opportunity for an excellent education.
Rufo: What’s your advice for governors and legislators in other states who are interested in passing universal school choice?
Ducey: First, I’d say to get out of the state capital and get away from the government unions and start talking to parents and building coalitions. Janelle Wood, who leads the Black Mothers Forum, and the black pastors of Arizona—almost all of them registered Democrats—were part of the coalition that helped us get this over the finish line. This is a game-changing issue at the state level, and the audience is large. This is every parent in the state, this is every new couple who wants to have stewardship over their taxpayer dollars, so that they can be in charge of their children’s education. You have to build those coalitions and get out in front of the public and make the case, room by room.
I’d like to think that this could be a bit like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. Nobody thought that it was possible. Once one person was able to do it, then many others followed. We know now that universal ESAs are possible, that you can get this through two legislative chambers and have a governor sign it—so let’s see it spread across the country.
Rufo: In my view, universal school choice has the potential not only to serve parents but also to provide communities with meaningful pluralism. Families, neighborhoods, and churches can create their own schools that are centered on their values, not the government’s.
Ducey: I think the educational savings account is the only way to renew and reform K-12 education. I also think it’s the opportunity for us to renew our country. There is no better way to bring communities together than around the best interest of their children. Having parental involvement and making sure that we have the best possible teachers getting additional pay is something that local communities will make certain of and prioritize—but we have to make sure that it’s possible. Too many people have felt trapped in a school system that, for whatever reason, wasn’t right for their child, or they felt like a number in a big education bureaucracy. This is a way to give power back to the people and also to let 1,000 flowers bloom in terms of new ideas—even beyond charter schools, or micro-pods, or who knows what’s next. Traditional K-12 in the United States has been flat-lining since the late seventies. It’s time for a new direction. This puts parents back in charge, and I’m excited about what’s next.
Photo by Maury Phillips/Getty Images for Leigh Steinberg