President Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education elevated the profile of parents that choose how and where their child learns. Prior to her appointment, Ms. DeVos was the chairman of one of the nation’s most active organizations that supported quality learning options for students, the American Federation for Children.
Her ideas are familiar to Arizona families. Thousands of state families already make decisions about their child’s education. Arizona ranks second in the nation when it comes to the share of public school students attending charter schools with 180,000 students attending 547 public charter schools. Thousands of families take advantage of the state’s open enrollment laws that allow students to choose any public school in the state, subject to space. More than 2,000 children use education savings accounts to learn at home, online, or at private schools. K-12 private school scholarship organizations award some 60,000 scholarships each year to eligible students.
The results of these choices are encouraging. Three of the four leading Arizona public schools in terms of their high school graduates’ 4-year college completion rate are charter schools. The number of low-income families taking advantage of private school scholarships has increased 42 percent since 2013.
Arizona families can use test scores, graduation rates, and other data available from the state Department of Education to compare district and charter schools. Yet little data were available to families on the size, open seats, and academic offerings of Arizona private schools. Lately, newspaper columns decried private schools’ supposed lack of accountability and say only wealthy families can benefit from options like education savings accounts.
But a new survey of Arizona private schools helps to dispel these myths. First, more than half of the prekindergarten, elementary, and middle schools that responded set their tuition rates at approximately $6,000 per year. The average education savings account for mainstream students is $5,000, which puts tuition well within reach of students from all walks of life. The median tuition for all respondents, including high schools, was $5,500. Furthermore, 85 percent of private schools already help students cover tuition costs.
Three out of four surveyed schools require students to take a nationally norm-referenced test like the Iowa Tests or AzMERIT. This means teachers and parents have student achievement results available to them to decide what subjects need more attention. Parents comparing schools—again, something Arizona families are used to doing—can use these results, along with a school’s mission and extracurricular programs to evaluate the best setting for their child.
If the accounts were made available to more children, survey results and education savings account growth patterns indicate schools have room available. The survey found that approximately 16,500 open seats exist in state private schools. The number of students using education savings accounts doubled every school year from 2011-12 to 2015-16. The number of savings account students could double every year again for at least 3 more years until every seat currently open is full—notwithstanding schools’ efforts in the future to serve more children.
If these enrollment patterns continued and some 18,000 children used education savings accounts in the 2019-20 school year, that would account for 2 percent of the total Arizona public school population. This pales in comparison to our 1.1 million public school students.
Research finds that one-third of students using an education savings account use their account to purchase multiple learning options. Combinations include online classes and personal tutors or private school tuition and public school extracurricular activities.
Private schools are not the answer for every child, but for students who need quality learning options, Arizona private schools are poised to be part of the solution.
— Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute.