There are currently two bills, SB1431 and HB2394, being considered in the legislature, which would expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), also known as school vouchers, to every K-12 student in Arizona over three years. While we are supportive of school choice where it advances an excellent education for every student, we are concerned about the proposed rapid expansion of ESAs as it lacks meaningful academic accountability and does not address issues of transparency of taxpayer funding.

Want to learn more? Keep reading for answers to common questions about ESAs, as well as a list of resources that provide even more information.

What is an Empowerment Scholarship Account?

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) have been part of the school choice landscape in Arizona since 2011-12 when they were originally created to serve students with special needs. Since then, ESAs (also known as vouchers) have been expanded to serve other students. To receive an ESA, parents of eligible children must waive their rights for their child to attend a public district or charter school and in return, they receive financial assistance to provide other options for their child’s education.

Who is eligible to receive an ESA?

Originally designed to serve students with special needs, other groups now have access to ESAs, including:

  • Students that attend public schools labeled poorly performing (D or F) in the year prior to applying
  • Students whose parent is active military duty or who was killed while serving active duty in the Armed Forces
  • Siblings of current recipients
  • Wards of the court who have been or will be adopted
  • Any child who resides on tribal lands

Students and parents must reside in Arizona and meet one or more other qualifications (learn more here).

How much state funding do ESAs provide?

The amount varies depending on the student. However, students generally receive 90 percent of the amount it would have cost to educate the child at a charter school, whether they attended a charter school previously or not. Charter schools typically receive around $1,200 more per student in state funding than traditional district public schools. Other factors that can influence the amount of funding a student receives is if the student has special needs and their grade level. For example, a student with significant special needs could receive up to $30,000.

How is the funding used?

The funds can be used for private school tuition and fees; tuition and fees for private online learning programs; tutoring services; curriculum; textbooks; or fees for national achievement tests, AP exams or postsecondary admissions; therapies for special needs students; and other approved items.

What are the impacts of the proposed expansion?

This school year (FY17) the program has an estimated 4,100 participants with over $37 million distributed to the recipients, according to the Arizona Education News Services and other sources. Of concern is how these dollars are being spent, as highlighted in the recent Auditor General’s report (https://www.azauditor.gov/sites/default/files/16-107_Report.pdf).

There is no academic accountability with ESAs, which means there is no way to track the quality of the education a child receives or to know how these students are doing. In addition, it is difficult to estimate the full cost of this program to the state general fund, which is a concern.

Expanding ESA eligibility to all K-12 students could increase enrollment and the cost of the program substantially. It is critical that we fully understand the impact this program has on the general fund and the broader education system before moving forward with further expansion.

Resources:
Arizona Department of Education – Includes FAQs, information about eligibility, and presentations.
Arizona Revised Statutes – See Chapter 19, Article 1 at the bottom of the page.
Empowerment Scholarship Accounts: Who qualifies, how money is spent (Arizona Education News Service, 2014)