Education Freedom Wins Big in Arizona

Instead of being attached to public schools, funding follows students to learning options they choose.


Arizona came closer to the important goal of separating education and state with the defeat of a ballot challenge to a recently adopted school-choice law. In June, the state legislature voted to allow education funding to be used for whatever learning path best suits individual children, not just to support government-run institutions that fail to meet the needs of many students. Opponents pushed an initiative to block expanded education options, but ultimately fell short in their effort to gather signatures. That leaves the instantly popular program free to proceed.

Arizona first introduced Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) in 2011, originally only for children with special needs, and later expanded to encompass students in failing schools, children of military families, and those who are adopted. The new law makes the ESA program available to essentially all students in the state of Arizona, providing funding for the education of their choice, subject to broad requirements.

"An ESA consists of 90% of the state funding that would have otherwise been allocated to the school district or charter school for the qualified student (does not include federal or local funding)," notes the Arizona Department of Education. "By accepting an ESA, the student's parent or guardian is signing a contract agreeing to provide an education that includes at least the following subjects: reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science."

At current spending levels, "families would receive over $6,500 per year per child for private school, homeschooling, 'learning pods,' tutoring, or any other kinds of educational service that would best fit their students' needs," adds the Goldwater Institute, which has long championed ESAs.

Once made available, the expanded ESA program won immediate support. In August, the online application form warned visitors: "Due to high volume, you may receive an error message.…Please try again later."

The tidal wave of applications should be no surprise. Gallup finds that 54 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the quality of K-12 education, and only 28 percent express a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in public schools (33 percent say they have "very little" or "none").

These miserable numbers come after years of general decline, but also after growing controversy over the performance of government-controlled educational institutions. Many public schools spectacularly face-planted in response to COVID-19, resulting in serious reading and math losses among students. Disagreement over pandemic policy as well as over interpretations of history and current events have also turned classrooms into political battlegrounds. What families want is often irreconcilable, whether involving public health or curricula, resulting in a sharp partisan split over public schools.

"The percentage of Republicans having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools fell from 34% in 2020 to 20% in 2021 and 14% today," Gallup's Lydia Saad observed in July. "Since 2020, independents' confidence has declined nine percentage points to 29% and Democrats' has remained fairly high – currently 43%, versus 48% in 2020."

The obvious solution would be to stop forcing people into shared institutions where opposing preferences invariably come into conflict. Instead, parents should be able to educate their kids by their own values, and according to the particular needs of their children. People were nominally able to do that in the past, but only if they paid twice— once through taxation for government institutions they rejected and then, again, for private schools, homeschooling, or other options they actually used. Something has to give to end classroom disputes and encourage some degree of happiness with children's schooling.

National polls tracked by the American Federation for Children finds anywhere from 63 percent to 74 percent support for giving "parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child's education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs." A poll from February of this year specifically about education savings accounts of the sort adopted by Arizona found 77 percent of respondents supported the idea.

But even though nobody is compelled to make use of ESAs, and everybody who is satisfied with public schools is free to leave their children in the government-controlled institutions, not everybody is happy with the expanded program. Save Our Schools Arizona, a union-backed group, tried to put a challenge to school choice on the ballot in a replay of a successful tactic from 2018. Voters that year overturned ESA expansion, approving a confusingly worded measure that may have led many of them to vote the opposite of what they intended.

To get on the ballot, the group needed to gather over 118,000 signatures. But this time, a pro-ESA Decline to Sign effort worked to persuade voters to spurn petitioners. They succeeded; on September 30, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs rejected the anti-choice ballot effort, noting "our office has inspected enough petitions & signatures to confirm that the 118,823 signature minimum will not be met."

Arizona families are again free to apply for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, with the deadline extended to October 15 because of the ballot battle.

The fight for education freedom isn't over. Hobbs may have rejected the challenge to ESA expansion out of necessity, but she's the Democratic candidate for governor on a platform including opposition to school choice. Hobbs, who attended private school herself, puts forward an education plan that would restrict charter schools and that also boasts she "continues to oppose the universal expansion of school vouchers. As governor, she will work to roll back universal vouchers."

But if she wins election to office (she and Republican Kari Lake are running neck-and-neck), any attempt to roll back ESAs will result in stripping them from thousands of families already enjoying education options. As of September 30, according to the state Department of Education, Arizona families submitted over 12,100 ESA applications for the expanded program. Any reversal will elicit outrage.

Meanwhile, West Virginia's Supreme Court just cleared the way for the similar Hope Scholarship program. "The Hope Scholarship Program is an education savings account (ESA) program that will allow parents and families to utilize the state portion of their education funding to tailor an individualized learning experience that works best for them," according to the office of State Treasurer Riley Moore.

The fight for separation of education and state isn't yet won. But advocates scored an important victory in Arizona, another in West Virginia, and have momentum on their side.