By Corinne Murdock |
2021 marks the ten-year anniversary of education savings accounts (ESAs) in Arizona. The state’s ESA policy, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, was established in 2011. As of this year, nearly a quarter of Arizona children are eligible for an ESA. The legislature has consistently fought to increase that rate – especially during this past legislative session.
The push for ESAs began with the Goldwater Institute. Their efforts led to the passage of SB1553, the first ESA policy in Arizona history. In a report, the Goldwater Institute highlighted three major factors that contributed to the ESA program’s success. The increasing demand for ESAs, financial benefits, and continued improvements all reportedly allowed the ESA program to grow.
Not only has the ESA program grown – supplemental resources have grown, too. The Goldwater Institute partnered with EdChoice to produce an interactive map to allow families to navigate their educational options. The map informs parents of state and local eligibility zones, the grade awarded each public school, and private school options. It also offers the location, contact information, grade range, tuition and fees for private schools.
The Goldwater Institute and EdChoice also released an informational packet discussing the track record, controversies, and details of the ESA program.
The ESA program has received significant pushback over the years. Activist groups like Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSA) view the ESA program as a drain on public school funding, which they claim is especially harmful for low-income families and in rural areas that already struggle with low funding.
However, research shows that per-pupil funding has increased by over $1,600 since the ESA program was put in place. This information was collected from reports by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the Arizona Department of Education (ADE).
In 2018, voters were presented with the option to expand ESAs as legislated in SB1431 with a ballot initiative, Proposition 305. It was the biggest move to expand the ESA program: if passed, all students would be eligible for ESAs. Over 64 percent of Arizonans voted against it.
Legislators attempted to pass SB1452 this year, which would’ve opened up ESAs to low-income families – but it stalled in the House after Senate passage. The House later shot down a budget provision attempting to revive the bill. Three Republican Representatives joined their Democratic colleagues to kill it: Michelle Udall (R-Mesa), Joel John (R-Buckeye), and Joanne Osborne (R-Goodyear).
This past year, the legislature passed laws enhancing the ESA program.
These laws reduced the waiting period for ESA applicants, dropped a punitive measure forcing parents to effectively pay twice for unapproved items, rescinded the ADE’s authority to prematurely enact punitive measures against parents, allowed online attendance to count toward time spent in a public school, allowed families to supplement their insurance coverage for special needs therapies, and reduced the processing time for applicants from 45 to 30 days.