Last summer, when Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law that made Empowerment Scholarship Accounts an option for all children in the state, special interest groups panicked.
Save Our Schools Arizona launched a referendum campaign, urging citizens to “vote for public schools” and support “our kids and our communities” by opposing the expansion. Yet SOS couldn’t gather enough signatures to put its proposal on the ballot.
It’s not that SOS didn’t have plenty of resources to qualify the measure. It’s just that families across the state think the accounts are what Arizona parents and students need.
“I’ve had so many conversations with neighbors and church friends, and it seems to come up everywhere,” says Annie Meade, mother of four and new account holder.
“My neighbors who send their children to public school … are really happy for me to have more choices for my kids,” she says.
With Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, Annie and other participating families can use a portion of their child’s funds from the state K-12 education funding formula to purchase education products and services for their children. The money may be used to pay for online classes, textbooks, school uniforms, private school tuition, and more.
Annie will use accounts for three of her children and send her fourth to a charter school. The money will be used to pay tuition and expenses at a micro-school, a small private school, along with curricular materials, music lessons and physical education classes.
Annie and parents like her can agree with SOS on at least one thing: Education should be the state’s top priority. Parents are rightfully concerned about the massive learning losses registered by students after the pandemic.
The makers of the ACT college entrance exam report that average scores fell to their lowest point in 30 years in the latest round of testing. The latest results from the Nation’s Report Card also show steep declines in student achievement in math and reading.
Those who rallied families to support Arizona’s accounts and told families to “decline to sign” the SOS petitions understood that parents are drowning in worry and fear for their children’s futures.
Advocates at Love Your School, which helped lead support for the accounts, told parents, “Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child this year,” and offered advice to public and private school families about how to stand up for their children when school officials were not transparent about their activities or even tried to bully parents into accepting different services for their student than what the families wanted.
Parents need to know how their children are performing so they can find help when a student needs it. All parents desire this kind of transparency, whether their children are in public, private, or homeschool settings.
Which helps explain why Annie and her neighbors agree that the accounts are good for all children in Arizona. “Even my public-school neighbors are not upset with me,” she says. There is no “stigma” being shown to those with accounts.
“Everybody seems to understand that what is best for each student is what should be done,” Annie says. She calls the claim that the accounts create a fight over taxpayer money for K-12 education a “straw man” argument, noting that Arizona lawmakers approved additional resources for public schools at the same time as they expanded the accounts.
Allowing every child the chance to apply for an education savings account did not divide families in Arizona. It gave parents something to agree on: that allowing parents and students to choose how and where children learn gives every child the chance to succeed. Now that’s a good idea in every state.
Jonathan Butcher is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation. Madison Marino is research associate and project coordinator in Heritage’s Center for Education Policy.