February 3, 2021
By Matt Beienburg

A new bill may make educational equality a reality for Arizona’s neediest students. Sponsored by Senator Paul Boyer and passed yesterday in the Senate Education Committee, SB 1452 would extend eligibility for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to low-income students throughout the state, giving new educational hope to thousands of students while providing financial relief to taxpayers.

Pioneered by the Goldwater Institute in 2011, Arizona’s ESA program gives families a portion of the funding that would have been spent covering the costs of their student’s education in a public school and allows them to instead use it to meet the needs of their specific child, whether through at-home curriculum materials, tutors at small and safe “learning pods,” private school tuition, special needs therapies, and more.

Learn more in this American Federation for Children video about how school choice programs like ESAs are an important part of the modern-day civil rights movement.

As Arizona families know all too well, the COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges in education, with most of Arizona’s 1.1 million students affected by campus closures and the loss of in-person instruction over much of the past year. Nearly 50,000 students have been displaced from traditional public schools as a result and are no longer even receiving an education from their prior school. 

Fortunately, the ESA program offers a lifeline to exactly these types of students—those who have been left behind or struggled to succeed in a traditional public school setting—whether before or during the pandemic.   

Right now, this program is available only to certain groups of children, including those with special needs and those coming from military families, Native American reservations, and failing public schools. But with SB 1452, state lawmakers have the chance to extend ESA opportunities to thousands of students across the state, including any child served by the free and reduced-price lunch program or federal Title I assistance for low-income kids.  

Nearly 10,000 of Arizona’s most vulnerable students are already being served by the state’s ESA program, and under SB 1452, thousands more will have the opportunity to join them—all at a far lower cost than what is spent by the public schools that have failed to meet their needs. Indeed, if SB 1452 passes, current and prospective ESA families will have a host of new opportunities to look forward to, including:

  • Extending ESA eligibility to low-income students.
  • Allowing support for student transportation to and from school.
  • Ensuring that seat time requirements that were waived for public schools during the pandemic are not used to preclude a student’s eligibility to apply for the ESA program.
  • Allowing ESA families to supplement their awards with additional “school tuition organization” (STO) financial aid in high school.
  • Ending administrative abuse by the department of education and its practices of double-charging parents for ESA items.
  • Ensuring that each student’s allocation of local and state tax dollars continues to support that student when they transfer from a public school to an ESA.

ESAs offer educational opportunity to students for less than two-thirds the cost of the roughly $11,600 per student per year that taxpayers spend per public school pupil. They do this while providing families enough funding to support at-home learning or private school tuition, with ESA awards averaging $6,400 per (non-special education) student, an amount that is enough to put the median private elementary school tuition in Arizona (roughly $6,300) within reach of even the most economically disadvantaged family.

While opponents of educational freedom have sought to malign the families and advocates of this program, perhaps they will take to heart the testimony of civil rights icons and community leaders—who unlike politicians beholden to union interests—have spoken courageously on behalf of the students who would benefit from this program. In an interview with the American Federation for Children, for example, civil rights champion Dr. H.K. Matthews—who marched at Bloody Sunday in 1965—exhorted legislators to recognize that “school choice is an extension of the civil rights movement…[the] freedom to be able to live where we want, work where we want…go to school where we want… It is very important that that bill gets passed.” (You can learn more about how school choice is a needed part of expanding civil rights in the video above.)

So if the ESA program is capable of improving many students’ educational opportunities, legislators must expand access to this important program. The Goldwater Institute is proud to support SB 1452 and encourages all friends of educational opportunity to join with us.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute.

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