The Way of the (Near) Future: Arizona Legislature Passes ESA choice bill

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday the Arizona Senate gave the final passage for SB 1553, Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, the nation’s first system of public contributions to education savings accounts as a choice mechanism, 21 to 7.  The bill is now on Governor Brewer’s desk. Designed to replace Arizona’s special needs voucher program lost to our Blaine amendment, the ESA program will allow the parents of a child with a disability to withdraw their child from a public district or charter school, and receive a payment into an education savings account with restricted but multiple uses.  Parents can then use their funds to pay for private school tuition, virtual education programs, private tutoring or saving for future college expenses.

Congratulations and thanks to sponsors Senator Rick Murphy and Represenative Debbie Lesko, my colleagues at the Goldwater Institute especially my coauthor for the ESA paper Nick Dranias. The tireless hard work of Arizona’s school choice coalition resulted in this passage, including but not limited to: A+ Arizona, the Arizona School Tuition Organization Association, the Arizona Catholic Conference, the Center for Arizona Policy, the Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice in additional to national partners such the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Educational Choice and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

This has been quite the week for parental choice in Arizona. First, the United States Supreme Court dispatched a challenge to the tax credit program that had been bouncing around in the 9th circuit for many years. Somehow in the fevered imagination of the ACLU an entirely voluntary program in a state which subsidizes secular options at a much higher rate than the tax credit scholarship compels parents to send their children to religious schools. It would be nice if these guys would follow the lead of the ACLU in Los Angeles and do something useful like suing against tenure policies that really damage the education of children.

Instead, they will probably go straight into court on the ESA program. Sigh. Nick and I followed the lead of very perceptive questioning in the Arizona Supreme Court’s deliberation over special needs voucher programs to make the case for the constitutionality of the ESA concept under the restrictions of the Arizona Constitution. Attorneys on both sides of the case agreed that a program allowing multiple uses of funds would not violate a restriction on providing aid to private or religious schools. Otherwise, we can argue that it is unconstitutional to pay state workers salaries out of the public treasury: some of that money winds up paying private school tuition in religious schools. 

Quelle horreur!

Parents will be using this program for things other than private school tuition, and parents have an incentive to look for education programs which deliver strong results and a low-cost due to the possibility of saving for college expenses. Paging Dr. Technology! As I’ve argued here before, this is a superior design for a parental choice program, and I’ll go further by saying that when we get any kinks worked out, choice supporters should seriously consider converting voucher programs into a system of public contributions to ESAs.

Next the legislature expanded the maximum size of an individual tax credit contribution from $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a married couple filing jointly to $750 for an individual and $1,500 for a couple in addition to the ESA bill.  The legislature also voted to eliminate the statewide cap on the corporate credit.

Great team wins all. Now we need to roll up our sleeves and get these programs to work for the kids who need them.

5 Responses to The Way of the (Near) Future: Arizona Legislature Passes ESA choice bill

  1. […] Ladner is right when he says: “This has been quite the week for parental choice in Arizona.” Of course, as my GoBash blogging friend noted, on Monday a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld the […]

  2. GGW says:

    Question for you on your last sentence — what persons or groups “own” the job of getting these things to work?

  3. Daniel Earley says:

    Matt’s last sentence? He was actually speaking to me. And to you. And to anyone in a position to help these kids’ families discover their options. 🙂

  4. Patrick says:

    Nice work matt

  5. matthewladner says:


    The ESA program will be administered in the Treasurer’s Office, and the tax credit program is administered by non-profit scholarship groups and overseen by the Arizona Department of Revenue.

    Beyond that however school choice supporters must be active is helping to implement and protect the program. Passing a law is only the start.

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