Author(s): Jonathan Butcher, Jason Bedrick
Thousands of families across the country, in states like Florida, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin, are using school vouchers to access private schools for their children. Thousands more in other states, like Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Georgia, are choosing private schools using scholarships awarded by organizations that accept donations from individuals and businesses, which, in turn, receive tax credits for their financial support.
However, Arizona’s education savings accounts (ESAs) are on the leading edge of school choice, encouraging greater innovation in American education. Whereas parents and families normally use vouchers and taxcredit scholarships to decide where their children attend school, Arizona parents use ESAs to determine where and how their youngsters are educated.
Under Arizona’s plan, designed by the Goldwater Institute in 2005 and enacted in 2011, the state awards eligible families 90 percent of their children’s perstudent public funding, based on a state formula. The Arizona Department of Education deposits the money in a private bank account that parents control with a use-restricted debit card. Because account spending is flexible, parents can buy textbooks, hire a tutor, enroll their children in online classes, pay private school tuition, or even save for future college expenses.
The only children eligible for an account in the 2011–12 and 2012–13 school years were children with special needs. In 2013, students in Arizona public schools graded D or F became eligible to apply, along with children in military families, and youth adopted from the state foster care system. New applicants must have attended a public school for at least 100 days in the prior school year. Today, some 200,000 Arizona children are eligible—nearly one in five public school students.
This paper examines results from the first survey of parental satisfaction among ESA families, and the survey is the first to ask how families would like ESAs to change. This paper also provides the first demographic data for a sample of participating families and details about how families are using the accounts. The Arizona Department of Education does not gather demographic information from applicants, and, as a result, no descriptive data are available to researchers. This paper is the first research effort to describe the types of families who are using education savings accounts.
Enacted 2011 • Launched 2011
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program allows parents to withdraw their
children from public, district, or charter schools and receive a portion of their public funding deposited
into an account with defined, but multiple, uses, including private school tuition, online education,
private tutoring, or future educational expenses. In the 2013-14 school year, eligibility expanded
beyond the original pool of students with special needs to students assigned to public schools or school
districts with a “D” or “F” letter grade, children of active-duty military members, and youth adopted
from the state’s foster care system.