January 27, 2020
By Matt Beienburg

Students, parents, educators, and organizations across the country are celebrating National School Choice Week this week. In Arizona, the Goldwater Institute joins in that celebration with a look at the educational milestones the Institute has witnessed and supported over the past three decades.

Families who live in places like Arizona sometimes take for granted the incredible array of educational options available to their children—while families elsewhere often look on with envy and amazement at a state like ours, which never forces a student to attend a particular school simply because of zip code. Indeed, through robust district open enrollment policies, a thriving public charter sector, high-quality private schools, homeschooling co-ops, education savings accounts, tuition tax credits, and more, Arizona has opened up new worlds of opportunity for its students.

But the educational freedoms that Arizona parents enjoy did not come about by accident or inertia—they owe their origins to the families, policy leaders, educational entrepreneurs, and organizations that have fought to establish and protect those freedoms. As we look ahead to a new decade in education, it’s worth looking back at a few of these accomplishments:

  • Arizona Adopts Open Enrollment (1994): Arizona adopted legislation granting families the freedom to attend traditional district schools other than just the one dictated to them by proximity. With the implementation of “open enrollment” policies, parents gained the chance to send their students to a school in whichever district promised to best serve them. (Today, 47 states have at least some form of open enrollment.)
  • Arizona Allows Creation of Charter Schools (1994): At the same time, Arizona embraced an innovative new concept by allowing the creation of charter schools that could offer an alternative model of publicly funded, independently operated schools. Coupled with the new district open enrollment policies, these charter schools offered an unprecedented promise of tuition-free choice and opportunity for families. (Today, 45 states have charter school legislation in effect.)
  • First School Tuition Organization (STO) Tax Credit Program Created (1997): The Arizona state legislature enacted the first School Tuition Organization (STO) tax credit program, allowing individual taxpayers to contribute to organizations that provide scholarships to private school students. In addition, the Arizona legislature implemented a tax credit program for donations toward extracurricular activities at public district and charter schools. (Today, 18 states have tax credit scholarship programs.)
  • Arizona Expands Tax Credit Scholarship Opportunities (2006): Arizona created additional School Tuition Organization tax credit scholarship opportunities by allowing corporate STO donations for low-income and disabled and displaced students.
  • Goldwater Pioneers Education Savings Accounts (2011): Arizona created the nation’s first education savings account program, known in the state as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA). Pioneered by the Goldwater Institute, this program first allowed special needs students in particular to receive a portion of the funding that would have been spent on them in public school and instead put it in a private account for that child to support at-home curriculum materials, special education therapies, private school tuition, and more. (Today, more than 6,400 Arizona students receive an ESA.)
  • Supreme Court Upholds Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (2014): The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the ESA program by allowing a unanimous Appeals Court ruling in favor of the program to stand, ensuring that families can continue to use ESAs going forward.
  • Education Savings Accounts Expand Nationally (2014-2019): Several additional states adopt the Goldwater-inspired education savings account program, bringing similar opportunity to kids in North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Meanwhile, Arizona’s ESA program eligibility has extended to students from military families, students from Native American reservations, and students from failing schools and the foster care system.
  • Charter School Enrollment Reaches 200,000 Students (2019): Arizona’s public charter school enrollment reaches 200,000 students, or 18% of the total public school enrollment, the highest proportion of any state in the U.S.

Now, in the 2020s and beyond, the Goldwater Institute and others continue to fight for students’ freedom to pursue the best education that fits their needs. From defending the rights of families in the ESA program through legislation and litigation, to advocating for academic transparency to allow parents to make informed decisions about their local public schools, the Goldwater Institute remains committed to students, families, and educational freedom. 

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

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