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. 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.
ESAs are funded at 90 percent of the charter school per-student base funding. For the 2015–16 school year, that amounted to $4,645 (K–8) or $4,904 (9–12) 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 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 attened a public preschool program prior to applying. New accounts are capped at 0.5 percent of the previous year’s total number of public and charter school students. That cap will be removed in 2019.
Arizona’s ESA program is relatively strong on its funding power, as 90 percent of the charter school perstudent base funding amount is deposited in each participant’s ESA. Arizona’s ESA program also excels in that it is not over-regulated. 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. The program could improve by expanding eligibility. The 2014–15 eligibility expansion no doubt gets closer to providing eligibility to all Arizona families, but despite that expansion, more than 75 percent of children in Arizona still are ineligible for ESAs. Additionally, the arbitrary cap of 0.5 percent of traditional public and charter school enrollment restricts even the current 22 percent eligible from enrolling.
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 high court’s decision essentially deemed the ESAs constitutional. Niehaus v. Huppenthal, 310 P.3d 983 (Ariz. App. 2013).