April 14, 2021
By Matt Beienburg
Arizona voters are asking lawmakers to lead on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), and their voices just got louder.
The state’s ESA program—which allows families to use a portion of the state dollars allotted for their children to pay for private tuition, tutors, and other teaching tools—has transformed thousands of lives both before and during the pandemic. For years, the testimonies of parents have been nothing short of remarkable:
- As one mother put it this past year to members of the State Board of Education, “ESA saved my son from a path that would have compromised him on a systemic level…”
- From another mom: “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…. We have tried public, private, and charter schools… [and] my child was able to meet some of her IEP [Individualized Education Program] goals in four months that no school had helped her to achieve in four years.”
- And from a mother in rural Arizona: “I want all to know that this ESA option to educate my children truly saved my family; my oldest has significant disabilities and she attended our public school through her ninth grade year… So many years were spent advocating and begging and pleading for her to be educated, and more importantly, even wanted… ESA has opened up our world to educational opportunities never to be found in the public school setting…”
Now, Arizona lawmakers are on the cusp of extending this same opportunity to thousands more children via SB 1452, which would provide ESA eligibility to low-income and veteran families.
Right now, only special needs students and select other groups, such as children whose parents are on active duty or were killed in the line of service, are eligible to participate in the program. But as Gaby Friedman of the Torah Day School testified to lawmakers in March 2021, the impact of ESAs on kids at her school has shown the need to give the same opportunity to even more families:
“Maya (not her real name) is six, comes from a low-income family, and is disabled…Maya is eligible for the ESA because she is a special needs disabled student…What I thought her story shows is that an ESA works for an individual child…Maya is not the only one with unique needs. There’s many parents out there… and their children aren’t getting the education that they want. Those children might be not disabled…but they need more than what they’re getting. And that’s why this bill is so important.”
Arizona voters increasingly agree.
Multiple recent polls have found overwhelming bipartisan support across Arizona for increasing access to ESAs. Now, a new Goldwater Institute poll has again found massive support among both rural and metropolitan regions of the state. The poll, which was conducted in March and April 2021 across three separate legislative districts (LD4, LD13, and LD25), found that over two-thirds of all respondents, including 70% of Democrats, 67% of Independents, and 71% of Republicans, voiced support for extending program eligibility to all low-income students in Arizona. In contrast, out of the overall sample (N=641), just 21% of voters opposed increasing ESA eligibility.
Union organizers and district superintendents may have the bigger megaphone and messaging apparatus, but our education system ultimately exists to serve Arizona students and their families. Especially in the wake of COVID-19 and the academic disruption unleashed by public school shutdowns over the past year, that truth seems increasingly clear to voters. May it be equally clear to Arizona’s policymakers.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute.