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Which Arizona Students Will Take Advantage of Expanded Choice Program?

| April 19, 2017

By Sarah Tully • Education Week

Now that Arizona’s expansive voucher-like law has passed, the question is, how many and which students will take advantage of the public funds that can be used at private schools.

As I wrote in a story about Arizona’s new education savings account, or ESA, law, supporters already are talking about the possibility of increasing how many students could receive the funds, roughly $4,400 per student, despite a cap worked out as a compromise to pass the law.

All of the 1.1 million students will be eligible to request accounts, but the number of recipients is capped at about 30,000 by 2022.

The Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based group that spearheaded the law and advocates for school choice nationally, was widely criticized for sending out an email vowing to work to lift the cap before Republican Gov. Doug Ducey even signed the law.

But the Empowerment Scholarship Account program has never reached its cap under the previous version of the law, in place since 2011. The program began solely for students with disabilities, but has slowly expanded to include more student groups—now roughly 186,000 eligible students, including those from low-ranking schools. About 3,100 students receive funds, mostly for special education, out of the maximum of 5,500 students per year.

The current cost is also greater than the estimated per-student amount of the expanded program. For elementary students, this year’s average award amount was $19,027 for students with disabilities and $5,970 for those without disabilities, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

An Arizona Republic analysis found that most students who use the accounts are leaving higher-performing, more-affluent school districts. Critics contend that more-affluent families can subsidize private tuition, which often costs much more than the state allocation.

Sen. Bob Worsley, a Republican who helped spearhead the compromise to pass the law, said Arizona already has a lot of school choice with charter schools, so he’s unsure if there is enough demand to reach the new caps. “I’ve told them, ‘Prove your point. Put these kids in the program and see if you can recruit enough kids,'” Worsley said about ESA supporters. “They only mustered 3,200 kids in six years.”

If the requests exceed the new cap, it’s unclear which students would get priority. The law doesn’t spell out how admission would work, so the Arizona Department of Education will have to figure out the rules.

Sen. Debbie Lesko, the Republican who sponsored the new bill, as well as previous versions of it, said she assumes the accounts will be granted on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a mad rush for students to start using ESAs,” Lesko said. “The opponents’ arguments are just way over the top hysterical and totally unmerited.”

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