Every Arizona family will soon have the opportunity to use an education savings account (ESA) to customize their child’s education. Under a new law signed by Governor Doug Ducey on July 7, students are eligible to receive $6,500 in state funding to pay for private school, tutoring, other instructional expenses, and technology.
“This is a monumental moment for all of Arizona’s students,” said Ducey at the bill-signing ceremony. “Our kids will no longer be locked in under-performing schools. Today, we’re unlocking a whole new world of opportunity for them and their parents. With this legislation, Arizona cements itself as the top state for school choice and as the first state in the nation to offer all families the option to choose the school setting that works best for them.”
ESAs are popular because they give families the power to customize their children’s education. In 2021, West Virginia established the Hope Scholarship Program that made 93 percent of children eligible to use an ESA worth about $4,600 for tuition, tutoring, and other education expenses. Arizona is the first state to offer ESAs to all children. According to EdChoice, eight states have established ESA programs to date.
For Arizona, the new universal ESA is the latest in the state’s pioneering program to expand choice in education. The Grand Canyon state already provides expansive choice within the public school system, thanks to a strong charter school law and open enrollment policies. Arizona also instituted several education tax credit programs that help parents choose private schools for their children.
But Arizona’s new universal program is the most far-reaching by giving all families direct control of a share of their child’s K-12 education funding. The plan is consistent with a vision I presented in a 2005 Goldwater Institute paper:
Instead of channeling children’s education funding through the public education system, the government would deposit those funds directly into each child’s ESA. Parents could then choose a private-, charter-, or public- school education for their child or pay for other qualified education expenses such as tutoring…Replacing the way states and the federal government allocate education resources with an ESA system of education finance is a revolutionary proposal. ESAs would provide greater opportunities for children of participating parents. And because unspent savings could be held in the accounts, parents would have an incentive to shop for the best schools, which would reduce inflationary pressure more effectively than traditional scholarship programs. ESAs would also help foster an “ownership society” by putting parents, not bureaucrats, in control of education resources.
Thanks to the visionary leadership of education reform advocates like Matthew Ladner and Darcy Olsen and courageous state lawmakers, Arizona became the first state in the country to establish a K-12 ESA program in 2011.
In 2022, giving parents direct control of public education funding through state-funded ESAs has become more important than ever. Widespread public schooling disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic–including more than a year of remote learning in many school districts–have imposed significant educational and emotional costs on a generation of children.
One can only imagine how different K-12 education would have been during the pandemic if all families had their child’s share of school funding available to form pandemic pods, access tutoring, or enroll in private schools that remained open when public school districts remained closed to in-person learning. Disadvantaged families would have had the power to ensure that their child received a high-quality education regardless of the public health decisions of their assigned public school districts.
Going forward, K-12 ESA programs can promote equal opportunity by giving all families the access to choose the right learning environment for their children and also narrow outside-of-school learning gaps. As I wrote for FREOPP in 2019, children from lower-income households have less ability to attend a school of their parents’ choice or benefit from outside-of-school enrichment. Disadvantaged children are more likely to attend an assigned public school and less likely to participate in a range of enrichment activities while out of school.
Other states’ policymakers should look to Arizona’s new ESA program as a model. But Congress should also reform federal laws to give the parents of disadvantaged children and special education students direct access to education funding. For example, 529 accounts–which now allow funds to be used on certain K-12 education expenses including tuition–should become a vehicle for giving families direct control of funding. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) recently introduced legislation that would give families a 50 percent tax credit for contributions made to 529 accounts. Congress should also consider reforming the federal Title I, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Head Start programs to give parents direct control of federal funding through accounts.
For more than a half-century, American policymakers have sought to promote equal opportunity in K-12 education. But simply giving parents direct control of their children's share of K-12 public school funding through an ESA will ensure that every student has a high-quality education. State and federal policymakers should follow Arizona’s example in the months and years ahead.