The traditional public school model is a taxi fleet in an Uber world. It provides less options and worse service, often at a higher price.
We see schools consistently fail kids across the country, but Arizona has been somewhat insulated. Instead of locking parents and teachers into the rusty old industrial model, the Grand Canyon State remains at the forefront of school choice.
Ever since the legislature approved charter schools more than two decades ago, opportunities for students have exploded. They can attend their neighborhood public school, a college prep academy, or focus at an arts, STEM or vocational school.
Homeschooling has a long tradition while the far more modern distance learning is as close as your keyboard. Add in private school scholarships, granted by individuals and corporations, and our state serves as a model for education reformers across the country.
But perhaps Arizona’s most important innovation is the Empowerment Scholarship Account.
The plan to expand ESAsHere’s how it works: The state keeps 10 percent of the funding that would have been received by the school a child previously attended. The other 90 percent of those funds are placed into an account that the child’s parents can direct toward education expenses. This means tuition or school fees, tutoring, online learning or special services for kids with disabilities.
Right now, just 17 percent of Arizona children are eligible for an ESA. In a poll conducted by EdChoice, all parents who participated in the program were satisfied, with a whopping 71 percent claiming to be “very satisfied.”
Why is such success being limited to such a small number of students? Thankfully, bills working their way through the Legislature would expand ESAs to every child.
Senate Bill 1431 and House Bill 2394 are twin bills that would allow every student in Arizona to use the program by the 2020-21 school year. Once signed by the governor, beginning in August, ESAs would be opened to include kids in four grade levels, then expand a few more grades each year until all children are covered.
The legislation met controversy last week when the Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimated that each ESA student would cost the state’s general fund $800 more than spent on a public-school student. If true, this would undermine supporters’ claims that the program would save Arizona money.
Why public schools are protestingHowever, Robert Robb demonstrates that the budgetary reality likely will be much different. The JLBC assumes that most kids who use the ESA would come from public schools. However, a large number would come from charters since their parents are the most receptive to school choice programs. Ex-charter school kids will save general fund money, not spend it.
Factor in private school demand, the Classroom Site Fund, and the reduction in property taxes and tax credits, and any cost to the state would likely be negligible.
However, the opposition to a universal ESA program isn’t about dollars. Those arguing the fiercest against school choice simultaneously demand vast increases in education spending. But instead of allowing parents to choose the best schools for their kids, the teachers’ unions and school administrators want to make those choices for them.
Why is that? Because the K–12 market in the U.S. is estimated to be worth $670 billion. If families are allowed to direct that money where they see fit, the union bosses and bureaucrats will no longer serve as middlemen. And they’ll no longer get to take a cut.
I attended traditional public schools, and I chose the same for my children through grade six. But as technology, culture and our economy evolves, our education system must as well. Universal ESAs would allow Arizonan families to customize their children’s schooling instead of locking them into the aged and failing one-size-fits-all model.