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 was the first state to enact an education savings account, the newest type of school choice program. 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.
Students in households that earn up to 250 percent of poverty ($64,375 for a family of four in 2019–20) will receive 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 were worth about $6,148 for students in grades 1–12 who do not have special needs in 2018–19. Students with special needs receive additional funding, and those amounts vary depending on the services the student’s disability requires. Because nearly six in 10 ESA students have special needs, the average ESA in 2019–20 is projected to be $12,585.
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 a school tuition organization (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) live 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 military members 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 attended a public preschool program prior to applying.
Arizona’s ESA program is one of the most innovative and empowering educational choice programs in the nation. The 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. Arizona’s ESA is the most empowering in the nation for students with special needs because of Arizona’s special-needs funding formula, which gives varying additional funding amounts based on students’ particular conditions and diagnoses. This is meant to ensure sufficient funding to address each child’s particular learning needs, instead of merely lumping together all students with special needs. Additionally, as of 2019, there is no cap on the number of participating students, so all eligible students who apply will receive funding. 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 that includes reading and grammar, math, social studies and science.
Arizona could improve its ESA by expanding it to serve all students. Additionally, 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.
Finally, the program’s implementation has often left much to be desired. Policymakers could improve the implementation of the program—making it easier for families to use and raising the level of financial accountability—by following Florida’s lead and outsourcing the administration to third-parties that have greater expertise managing large numbers of flexible spending accounts. The relevant government agency would then provide oversight rather than attempt to administer the program directly.
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). The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled ESAs are neutral toward religion. 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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