Arizona was the first state to enact an education savings account program, the newest school choice mechanism. The passage and launch of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program in 2011 opened the door to new learning opportunities for students with special needs and circumstances. In 2017, the governor signed an expansion of the program that would eventually make it open to nearly all of Arizona’s K–12 students—however, that expansion is on hold pending the outcome of a ballot referendum, which itself is the subject of a legal challenge. Learn more about how the program works on this page, including eligibility, funding, regulations and more.
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.
Students in households earning up to 250 percent of poverty ($61,500 for a family of four in 2017–18) will have ESAs funded at 100 percent of the base for whichever school type the student previously attended (charter or district). For all other students, ESAs are funded at 90 percent of the same per-student base funding. ESAs are currently worth about $5,600 for students who do not have special needs. Students with special needs receive additional funding, and those amounts vary depending on the services the student’s disability requires.
Students must have previously attended public school for at least 100 days of the prior fiscal year and met one of the following characteristics: (1) received a scholarship from an STO under Lexie’s Law, (2) attended a “D” or “F” letter-grade school or school district, (3) been adopted from the state’s foster care system, (4) is already an ESA recipient or (5) the child lives on a Native American reservation. Students eligible to attend kindergarten are also eligible provided they meet one of the above criteria. Additionally, children of active-duty military members stationed in Arizona, children whose parents were killed in the line of duty, children of parents who are legally blind, deaf or hard of hearing, and siblings of current or previous ESA recipients are also eligible. Children of active-duty members of the military or whose parents were killed in the line of duty are not required to attend a public school prior to applying for an ESA. Finally, preschool children with special needs are also eligible and are not required to have attend a public preschool program prior to applying.
If the expansion that the Arizona lawmakers enacted goes into effect, then beginning in 2018–19, all kindergarteners, and, if they meet the 100-day requirement, all first-graders, second-graders, sixth-graders, seventh-graders, ninth-graders, and 10th-graders would be eligible. Beginning in 2019–20, those students and, if they meet the 100-day requirement, all students in grades 3, 8 and 11 would be eligible. In 2020–21, all K–12 students would eligible, provided they meet the 100-day requirement. New accounts would be capped at 0.5 percent of the previous year’s total number of public and charter school students. Beginning in 2022–23, the cap would be be fixed at the number of accounts approved in 2021–22.
If the expansion does not go into effect, then beginning in 2019-20, there will be no total cap on the number of accounts approved.
rizona’s ESA program is relatively strong on its funding power, as 90 percent of the charter or district school per student base funding amount is deposited in each participant’s ESA, and 100 percent is deposited for low-income students. Arizona’s ESA program also excels in that it avoids unnecessary regulations and empowers families to hold education providers accountable. ESA-using parents must sign an agreement to provide an education including reading and grammar, math, social studies and science, and participating private schools or service providers must not discriminate.
If the expansion is implemented, then ESA students will be required to take one of several nationally norm-referenced tests or the state standardized test, but the state does not mandate a particular test, which will encourage private school participation. Likewise, if the expansion is implemented, then Arizona’s ESA is available to all students entering kindergarten, and it is very positive that within a relatively short timeframe, by the 2020–21 school year, all children will be eligible. However, the requirement for most students to first be enrolled in a public school for 100 days of the prior school year sets an arbitrary limit that may inhibit a parent’s choice of education for at least one school year, and the program still includes an arbitrary cap of 0.5 percent of traditional public and charter school enrollment, meaning that only about 9,000 students will be able to receive ESAs during the 2018–19 academic year.
Parent must sign an agreement to:
Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 15-2401 through 2404
On March 21, 2014, the Arizona Supreme Court declined to review a Court of Appeals’ ruling upholding the state’s education savings accounts (ESA) program. The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that ESAs are neutral toward religion. Also, although a prior 2009 decision by the Arizona Supreme Court in Cain v. Horne 202 P.3d 1178 (Ariz. 2009) (en banc) found vouchers to be unconstitutional in Arizona, the appellate court distinguished ESAs, said they did not violate the state constitution because funding can be used for a variety of educational resources in addition to private school tuition. Niehaus v. Huppenthal, 310 P.3d 983 (Ariz. App. 2013).
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