February 16, 2021
By Matt Beienburg
Arizona students just scored a major victory this week, as state senators passed SB 1452 to bring educational opportunity to thousands of disadvantaged kids. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Paul Boyer, would extend eligibility of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to low-income communities, giving families greater control over the education dollars allotted for their children.
Participation in the ESA program, which was pioneered by the Goldwater Institute in 2011, has been surging both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as many public schools have closed their doors to in-person learning: Starting with fewer than 200 students its first year, the ESA program now serves roughly 10,000 Arizona children.
Scores of powerful parent testimonies have all told versions of the same story. As one mother put it, “I am a parent of three children on ESA, but I also have a master’s degree in elementary education, and ESA has saved the educational lives of my three children…”
Now, thousands more families across the state are one step closer to winning this same educational opportunity for their students. Indeed, SB 1452 would help tear down the economic barriers that keep better education options out of reach. As a 2019 Goldwater Institute – American Federation for Children report made clear, for example, the median ESA award not only fully covers tuition costs at the majority of private elementary schools in Arizona, but ESAs and private school options are typically far less costly than the amount spent per child in nearby public schools.
Perhaps even more importantly, as thousands of Arizona families have sought out at-home learning options and small and safe in-person “learning pods” amid public school closures, ESAs will help ensure that even the most economically disadvantaged families will have the financial ability to pursue these options for their kids.
SB 1452 would do all this while using the same broadly accepted, federally established approach to identifying low-income students used for the Federal Title I and Free/Reduced-Price Lunch programs, ensuring consistency and fairness for ESA families.
Arizona has always been a leader in providing options for our students, whether via public school open enrollment, our robust system of charter schools, or our tax credit scholarship and other private choice programs. Especially in a time when politicians and education unions have defied science and paralyzed student learning for millions of kids across the country, it is essential that Arizona continue providing families every chance at success. The vote of Arizona’s state senators on SB 1452 is one more step in that direction.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute.