One of the biggest questions this year at the Arizona Legislature is whether to expand our state’s program of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). My answer is, “Yes, we can!” (Or as we say in Spanish, ¡Sí, se puede!)
Known elsewhere as Education Savings Accounts, Arizona’s ESAs give families a certain amount of money (for non-disabled students, the amount is typically about $5,000 a year) to pay for qualified education expenses, including tuition at independent schools, textbooks, tutoring, and online curricula. Students can also use ESA monies to attend select courses at public charter schools and traditional district schools.
Unlike a voucher program, ESAs are not use-it-or-lose-it: Families can save monies not spent in the current school year for college or future vocational training. And unlike vouchers, ESAs go to families, not to schools, and thus do not involve the government giving direct support to religious schools.
Currently, ESAs in Arizona are only available to children with learning disabilities, children living on Indian reservations, children whose parents are active duty military personnel, or children in officially-designated failing schools. That is actually upwards of one-quarter of the students in Arizona, but at present, there are only about 3,000 children using ESAs.
The Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey should make ESAs universal in Arizona, so that all children will be eligible. The expansion of ESAs to universal eligibility will give families from all backgrounds—including Hispanic families—greater access to the educational resources that work best for them, and that will help them live up to their full potential.
Parental choice is already one of the greatest success stories in Arizona policy. According to the Urban Institute, a policy research organization, Arizona ranked 13th best in the nation in educational performance in 2015, when adjusting test scores for demographic factors.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that Arizona students have lead the nation in overall math and reading gains since 2009. Much of that success is due to existing parental choice programs, including our charter schools (which have majorities of minority students, many Hispanics) and our system of scholarship tuition organization tax credits.
But we must do better. Too many Arizona children are still trapped in underperforming schools. Under the current eligibility rules, students can get ESAs if they go to schools rated by the state education department with a D or an F. But if they go to C schools, they are stuck. Why should students have to settle for a C school? Some of our charter schools have world-class test scores, but sadly, they also have long waiting lists.
No wonder parental choice is so popular. Polling shows that about 70 percent of Americans support parental choice, and among Hispanics, the percentage is even higher—76 percent, according to a 2016 survey.
Best of all, greater parental choice will introduce vigorous competition for district schools that will force them to improve. Bonus: taxpayers save an average of over $4,000 per student when students use ESAs to leave the traditional school district system.
Arizona must be constantly mindful of interstate competition for workers and businesses. To attract and retain entrepreneurs and propel economic growth, we must have the best possible school system. And the competition is increasingly strong.
Nevada was the first state in the country to adopt universal eligibility for ESAs and is working on a funding mechanism to allow its program to take full effect. Meanwhile, state legislators in Texas will soon adopt their own system of ESAs. Added to the fact that both states do not have a state income tax, the presence of ESAs will increase the already fierce competition Arizona faces as it seeks to attract workers and entrepreneurs.
Can Arizona compete? Can we improve educational opportunities for all of children? Can we expand ESAs? ¡Sí, se puede!
Fernando Gonzales is an Arizona field director for The LIBRE Initiative, a project for Americans for Prosperity
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.