Are Arizona’s Ed Savings Accounts a Model for Voucher Programs?

The Friedman Foundation for Education Choice believes that the future of education lies in individual accounts, funded with government money, for each child to spend as they choose. These accounts are similar to the ones implemented in Arizona, the Heartlander reports, which have initially been used to finance education for disabled students and have recently been expanded to cover all students who attend underperforming public schools.

Arizona’s Education Savings Account law was drafted with assistance from the state’s Goldwater Institute. Its education director Jonathan Butcher believes that the ESA is a sign of things to come and that the law will allow individuals to think about education in a whole new way. Under the law, more than 200,000 additional students will qualify for the savings accounts in 2012, and a further 500,000 by 2013.

Funding students directly and giving families both choice and power is the best way to save critical taxpayer dollars and create a custom education for every child, concludes “The Way of the Future: Education Savings Accounts for Every American Family,” authored by Matthew Ladner.

“School vouchers allow children to transfer between participating public and private schools and take the form of a coupon,” Ladner said. “Education Savings Accounts are actual accounts which parents can use for specified educational purposes—including private school tuition, but also online education programs, certified private tutors, college courses, and savings for future higher education expenses.”

Butcher pointed out that ESAs give parents the complete control over how and where their children are educated — including making a decision to place their kids in online schools. Ladner expects that Arizona’s ESA law will serve as a model for voucher programs around the country, comparing early voucher programs to cell phones that eventually evolved into iPhones. He anticipates that all voucher-related efforts will turn into something closely-resembling ESAs soon.

Before parents can take advantage of an ESA, they must sign an agreement guaranteeing that their children will receive instruction in mathematics, science, reading and other core subjects. In exchange, the families receive full control over 90% of the state’s per-student funds in a savings account and then are given broad latitude on how that money is spent.

In 2013, approximately 20 percent of Arizona public school students will be eligible for an ESA, according to the Goldwater Institute. Seventy-five students first participated in 2011, and now 400 do.

The Arizona School Boards Association and Arizona Education Association, a union—what Ladner calls ‘the usual suspects”—have sued to stop the program. In January, a judge upheld it, and the plaintiffs have appealed. Ladner said he expects the program to “grow steadily once the courts settle the case.”