Parker Snider: Arizona poised to expand school choice to every student

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[Photo Credit: Pixabay.com]

A school choice measure that would allow all 1.1 million Arizona students to use state-funded education savings accounts passed in the state’s House of Representatives this week.

The bill, HB2853, expands the state’s current education savings account program, which today serves just under 12,000 children, to all Arizona students.

According to Corey DeAngelis, a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children, the program will be the largest in the nation if approved.

That approval looks likely. The Arizona Senate seems poised to vote in its favor and Governor Doug Ducey, a school choice advocate, will likely sign the bill. Passage in the House, where two Republican members switched votes to push it over the finish line, appears to have been its most difficult legislative hurdle.

Even so, there is some opposition. The Arizona Education Association, a teachers union, and an organization called “Save Our Schools Arizona” are calling on Senators to vote ‘no’. Knowing their efforts are likely to fail, Save Our Schools Arizona is planning a referendum campaign to force a vote of the people. A similar referendum in 2017 and 2018 was successful in stopping an earlier program expansion. That rejection, of course, was before the pandemic which caused many parents and families to see the benefits of school choice.

If the measure goes into effect, families will be able to use the money–between $6,000 and $7,000 a year–for private school tuition, tutoring, homeschooling materials, and other approved expenses.

Already many Arizona children are enrolled in a school of choice. 15% of Arizona students currently attend charter schools, which are privately operated schools that receive funding and some oversight from the local school district. Another 6% are enrolled in the private schools through Arizona’s current private school choice program.

In Alabama, less than .1% of students are enrolled in charter schools. Only .5% are enrolled in private schools through a school choice program. This is not due to lack of demand, as many needy students attempting to escape their failing schools are not given the opportunity. Alabama’s school choice programs are simply too limited and are only serving the smallest number of students.

In the 2022 Regular Session, Alabama legislators had the opportunity to pass similar legislation as Arizona. The Parent’s Choice Act, SB140 sponsored by Senator Del Marsh (R-Anniston) and Rep. Charlotte Meadows (R-Montgomery), would have offered families over $5,000 per student to use for private school tuition and other approved expenses through an Education Savings Account.

Like in Arizona, the state’s teachers union was vocally against the bill. Unlike in Arizona, Alabama’s GOP-dominated legislature did not put the bill up for discussion in the Senate or the House, much less pass it into law. The fact that expanding school choice is a part of the national Republican Party platform seems a non-issue for most Alabama legislators.

Whether such duplicity matters to Alabama residents, however, remains to be seen.

Parker Snider is the Director of Policy Analysis for the Alabama Policy Institute.