Arizona Governor Signs Universal School Choice Law: 'The First in the Nation'

Arizona Governor Signs Universal School Choice Law: 'The First in the Nation'
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at a MAGA campaign rally in Prescott, Ariz., on Oct. 19, 2020. (Caitlin O'Hara/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

Arizona, with a new law granting scholarship funds to all families that wish to customize their child's education, has become the state with the "most expansive" school choice policy in the nation.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday signed into law HB 2853, which passed the Republican-majority state legislature last month in a party-line vote. The bill allows the state's 1.1 million students to tap into the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) and use their share to enroll in any education program that best meets their needs.

"This is a monumental moment for all of Arizona's students. Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools," said the Republican governor. "Today, we're unlocking a whole new world of opportunity for them and their parents."

Launched in 2011, Arizona's ESA has been limited to a rather small group of students, such as those who have a disability, have a parent serving in the armed forces, attend a failing public school, live in foster care, or live on a Native American reservation.

Qualified students receive about $6,500 each year to attend a school of their choice, which can be a public school outside their school district, a public charter school, a private school, a religious school, a home school, or any other kind of educational services. According to pro-school choice think tank Goldwater Institute, the program primarily benefits students from low-income families that otherwise can't afford their preferred alternatives.

With HB 2853 becoming law, the ESA is now available to all K-12 students across the state, regardless of their backgrounds or what type of school they are enrolled in.

"In Arizona, we fund students, not systems, because we know one size does not fit all students," said the bill's sponsor, Arizona House Majority Leader Ben Toma.

While critics decry the ESA expansion for directing public funds away from public schools, school choice proponents argue that ESA is a more efficient usage of taxpayers' dollars. On average, Arizona spends more than $11,000 on each public school student—a price 70 percent higher than the $6,500-per-child voucher.

In fact, a 2019 policy analysis (pdf) by the Goldwater Institute suggests that the program actually increases Arizona's per-child public school spending, because it works in a way that every time a student leaves a public school with an ESA, over $600 is put back into that public school system.

According to Arizona's education department, parents who want to take advantage of the ESA have to follow a set of rules designed to prevent fraud or abuse. Specifically, participants must verify their Arizona residency; hire education providers that have proper credentials and are not immediate family members; make sure to use some of the ESA money for reading, grammar, math, social studies, and science; and submit receipts on a quarterly basis.

"To protect the ESA program and taxpayer dollars, the Department pursues all misspending and disallowed expenditures," reads a lengthy parents' guidebook (pdf). The education department has a zero-tolerance policy on substantial misuse of funds with the intent to defraud and will refer these cases for potential prosecution.