School Choice

The Fate of Arizona's Successful School Choice Initiative Hangs in a November Ballot Measure

Until we can get government entirely out of education, we'll have to keep fighting to preserve and expand our ability to choose what's right for our kids.


Pavel Horak/Westend 61 GmbH/Newscom

Ideally, government would play the same role with regard to education as it does with food, clothing, and shelter: none, for most people, although perhaps a provider of last resort for those truly in need of even the bureaucratized, one-size-fits-none offerings in which the state specializes. But since we've grown accustomed to the idea that governments should mug us in order to fund an army of loyal employees and their fumbling attempts to hammer knowledge into our kids' heads, attempts to provide widely accessible alternatives to government schooling inevitably involve diverting some of those stolen funds. And diverting those funds requires political battles against entrenched allies of the state monopoly—such as that playing out in Arizona over an effort to expand a school voucher program.

Strictly speaking, whether or not Arizona's empowerment scholarship accounts (ESAs) are actually vouchers is a matter of debate. That's because, in 2009, Arizona's Supreme Court ruled that vouchers unconstitutionally channel public money to private and religious schools. So the state replaced the voucher program with a plan devised by the market-oriented Goldwater Institute. A 2013 report for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now knows as EdChoice) described the plan as one under which "the state awards eligible families 90 percent of their children's per-student public funding, based on a state formula. The Arizona Department of Education deposits the money in a private bank account that parents control with a use-restricted debit card. Because account spending is flexible, parents can buy textbooks, hire a tutor, enroll their children in online classes, pay private school tuition, or even save for future college expenses." Because funding goes to families instead of directly to private schools, ESAs aren't considered to be vouchers—and families gain a lot of freedom.

Not that it really matters if ESAs are vouchers or not. What matters is that they've allowed special-needs kids and those attending public schools awarded pitiful D or F ratings to escape institutions that don't work for them so they can seek education elsewhere.

Last year, lawmakers voted to expand eligibility for the empowerment scholarship accounts program to all students, with participation capped at around 30,000 kids. But opponents of school choice won a battle to put the program's expansion on the ballot as Proposition 305. They figured that a year in which government employees sold their public tantrum demanding more money—the #RedForEd strike—as a good deed for the tots was one in which they might get state residents to vote against freedom of choice, and against happiness with their children's education.

Yes, to vote against ESAs is to oppose improved prospects at being pleased with the way your kids are educated. In their report for the Friedman Foundation, authors Jonathan Butcher and Jason Bedrick found that "parents using an ESA are more satisfied with their children's current education compared with their previous public school… No parent responded as neutral or reported any level of dissatisfaction with the accounts."

Specifically, 43 percent reported some level of satisfaction ("somewhat satisfied," "satisfied," or "very satisfied") with the public schools their children attended before they started using an ESA. After switching over, 71 percent of surveyed parents said they were "very satisfied" with ESAs, 19 percent reported being "satisfied," and 10 percent said they were "somewhat satisfied."

That level of satisfaction with chosen educational approaches is no shocker, since parents can use their accounts for education pretty much as they please, shopping around until they find solutions that work for their families. About two-thirds of the surveyed families use ESAs to pay private school tuition, but a third use them for homeschool curriculum, while others hire tutors or pay for education therapy. That's the same sort of diversity we see when people choose their own food, clothing, and shelter instead of being forced to patronize state-provided cafeterias, outfitters, and barracks. When people are allowed to decide for themselves, they don't opt for one-size-fits-all approaches.

Expanded access to ESAs would grant more families the potential for greater control over and happiness with children's education that wealthier families already enjoy. People who currently have to pay taxes to support schools that serve their children poorly would be able to divert that money to education options that do the job properly without having to dig even deeper into their pockets for the funds.

As of last week, polling on Proposition 305 conducted by Suffolk University and the Arizona Republic shows a plurality of Arizona voters (41 percent) supporting expansion of the program, with 32 percent opposed and 27 percent undecided. That's a lot of undecided voters, but it gives the edge to those who want to expand the empowerment scholarship accounts program.

Does that mean advocates of bureaucratic monopolies overplayed their hand?

Actually, opponents of ESAs might win from sheer confusion. Or maybe they'll lose because of confusion. Either way, it's not clear that the ballot measure's fate will reflect voters' intentions.

"Every Democrat in the Legislature opposed the 2017 voucher expansion that Prop. 305 would keep in place or repeal. But 51 percent of Democratic voters surveyed for the poll said they would vote yes in support of the expansion," the Arizona Republic reports. "Meanwhile, Republicans pushed the voucher expansion at the Legislature. But only 29 percent of Republican voters polled indicated they would vote yes on Prop. 305."

That's probably because Proposition 305 was placed on the ballot by opponents of school choice, but a "yes" vote supports ESA expansion, while a "no" vote opposes it.

Understand? You do? Good for you—maybe you could explain how that works to Arizona voters.

This confusion comes courtesy of the people who turned education into a tax-funded government service. The best way to avoid political battles and baffling ballot questions is to take children's education out of the hands of government bureaucrats, of course, and turn it into something that you select based on how well it suits your family's needs.

Until that happens, we'll have battles like that being waged in Arizona over Proposition 305. We'll just have to hope that, however Arizonans vote, and whether or not their votes reflect their intentions, freedom of choice prevails for families and the children they want to see educated by institutions more responsive than government agencies.