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ESA bill would put students first

Angela Black, right, with her brother Luke Black at their home, pose for a photo Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Before the pandemic, Arizona ranked first in the nation for educational opportunity through the combination of public charter, private, and homeschool choices.  Additionally, Arizona ranked first for the percent of students with access to one or more charter schools in their zip code.

Stanford University’s Opportunity Project linked state achievement data from across the country, allowing comparisons of academic proficiency and growth for schools, districts, and the charters operating within them, counties, and states as a whole. For the 2017-18 school year, Arizona led the country in student growth overall and growth among low-income students. In essence, high academic growth rates occur when there are many schooling options for families. Arizona has been a shining star for the entire nation to follow. Until now.

Laurie Todd-Smith

Unfortunately, over the past three years, children across the United States have been impacted by political agendas and rigid Covid guidelines. As a result, student test scores in the Grand Canyon state reached shocking lows in 2021, with only 35 percent of third-graders passing their English Language Arts exam and only 27 percent of eighth-graders passing their math exam. Arizonians deserve better.

Recently, Arizona House Leadership introduced H.B. 2853, removing restrictions and extending eligibility for an Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA), allowing approximately 1.1 million students access. This bill is a universal expansion of the ESA program to all K-12 students, including incoming kindergartners.  This bill would put Arizona back in first place with the most expansive K-12 education savings account in the country. If passed, it will be the gold standard in school choice.

Parents can use ESA funds to help pay for alternative, non-public education opportunities. This lifeline legislation gives families financial freedom and flexibility to pay tuition costs, which are critical as inflation surges and take-home pay is shrinking.

Despite the opportunity for Arizona to reclaim its reputation as a leader in student success, some legislators still opt to deny families the ability to choose how to use their child’s education dollars. However, the Left’s alignment with national teachers’ unions only proves problematic. When Covid hit, national teachers’ unions used the pandemic to keep children out of the classroom or force even the youngest children to struggle with masks in the classroom and on the playground. These atrocious policies have stunted our children’s social and intellectual growth, with two years of stringent rules on masks and social distancing. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lowered the standards for children’s development.

An alliance between the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union and the CDC also became evident. The AFT contacted the CDC as the agency was developing reopening guidelines for schools during the pandemic. An agency deputy gave Randi Weingarten and National Education Association Union President Becki Pringle a copy of the guidelines before they were announced so the two bosses would have “time to digest” them.

As a result of school closures and educational setbacks, Covid amplified the importance of school choice. It exposed a system that does not meet the needs of all families. It demanded an education system that goes beyond the one-size-fits-all approach, provides choice, and places parents in control as the most prudent way to meet children’s and their families’ unique educational and social needs.

Homeschooling and other non-public schools’ reports prove that non-traditional options can accelerate learning, ensure safety and instill the values America needs for a truly prosperous future. Furthermore, they can do it for far less per student than in comparable traditional public schools. For example, a 2019 report from the Goldwater Institute found the average for students receiving the ESA award was $10,000 less per student per year than the surrounding big government schools.

Fortunately, Arizona legislators have their own choice to make. This bill would put Arizona first with the most comprehensive K-12 education savings account in the country. Moreover, if passed, this bill will be the gold standard in school choice, becoming a beacon of hope for American families through this trailblazing legislation. H.B. 2853 will provide freedom and flexibility for parents and students. After the system has failed our families for nearly three years, the least we can do is allow parents the opportunity to try something different for their children. School choice is not a weapon to take down public schools but a tool to allow parents to choose their child’s means of education and ensure a pathway to success.

Thomas Jefferson famously once wrote, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” Imagine an Arizona where our over 1 million children enrolled in K-12 schools could have an even greater opportunity for success. Arizona families and students should come first, not last.

Dr. Laurie Todd–Smith, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Education Opportunity and Center for the American Worker at the America First Policy Institute. She is a former public-school educator, former Director of the Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor, and proud alumni of the University of Arizona.

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