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Arizona Leads the Charge on School Choice Policy

States around the country have followed up the so-called “Year of School Choice” in 2021 by advancing further toward educational freedom. As Georgia lawmakers continue to debate the merits and details of school choice, we are in danger of getting left behind.

Earlier this month, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed the nation’s most important piece of state-level school choice legislation this year.

Arizona H.B. 2853 extends access to Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) to all K-12 students in the state. Previously, students who qualified included those with disabilities, those who attended a failing public school, wards of juvenile courts, children of active-duty Armed Forces members, residents of Indian Reservations, children of disabled parents and a few other categories.

Qualified students made up about 23% of Arizona’s K-12 population, but with the removal of those barriers, school choice is now available to all of the state’s students and families. Arizona has gone above and beyond simply providing better access to its students: it has altered the foundation of its education system. The idea that money should follow students and not prop up failing institutions used to apply only to students in the most need. Now it is the norm in Arizona, and other states are taking notice.

Loyal fans of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation should recognize ESAs as one of our most consistently touted policies of the past few years. (Although Georgia’s version stands for Education Savings Accounts, these policies are essentially the same.) Georgia Policy has long advocated for ESAs as a moral, fair and fiscally sound policy that encourages innovation and choice. Despite Georgia and several other states stalling on the way to school choice legislation, perhaps advocates can view Arizona’s effort as a signal that school choice is gaining momentum.

Unfortunately, last year’s most important piece of school choice legislation recently hit a snag. West Virginia’s “Hope Scholarship” (no relation to Georgia’s college scholarship program), which also provides funds for students leaving public school, was recently blocked by a circuit court decision. However, State Attorney General Patrick Morrissey says he will appeal. “We will fight for our kids and the hard-working families of our state to retain this law and uphold its constitutionality,” said Morrisey.

Educational freedom advocates dismayed by the news from West Virginia need only look to nearby Tennessee, where a three-year-long court injunction against an ESA program for students in Memphis and Nashville was lifted this month. Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee reaffirmed his commitment to the program in an official statement on July 13. “Starting today, we will work to help eligible parents enroll this school year, as we ensure Tennessee families have the opportunity to choose the school that they believe is best for their child,” said Lee

A renewed state-level push toward greater school choice is certainly capable of creating momentum for itself, and Arizona’s legislation could serve as a blueprint for the political game to come—the first domino to fall. However, it is also a reflection of an education policy environment that has changed significantly in the past two years.

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, pointed out in a June blog post that the Supreme Court’s decisions in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue (2020) and Carson v. Makin (2022), both of which ensured that funding will not discriminate against private schools on the basis of religion, are encouraging signs for school choice advocates. DeGrow also mentions positive electoral shifts since 2020 in states like Iowa, Texas, Idaho, and Kentucky, where school choice-friendly candidates saw victories. Widespread dissatisfaction with lockdowns and virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic and the relevant political focus on the place of race and gender in K-12 curriculum also have many parents rethinking their educational options.

Legislators and advocates of school choice across the country should look to current events and the political climate as one of the best opportunities for reform in recent memory. Most ESA proposals ultimately focus on expanding access to as many students as possible with a focus on those with the greatest need. Arizona’s law shatters barriers to access at an unprecedented level. It should serve as an encouraging call to renewed action, if not a sign of things to come across the United States.