Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a controversial law that expands the pool of students who are eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) funding. Before its expansion, ESA funding was only made available to parents of special needs students, who could then use the money towards private school tuition or other educational needs. Now, eligibility will extend to students who attend poor-performing schools, live on Native American reservations, and experience some form of hardship.
"The legislation, sent to Ducey by Republicans in the Legislature after a marathon session Thursday, is not as expansive as the original proposal, which would have allowed all 1.1 million public-school students to use the program by 2021," according to The Arizona Republic. "Instead, the legislation will allow within several years all students to apply for the program but limits the number who could become eligible."
The new move would also take away the option for parents to use the ESA funds towards college savings accounts, completely cover private school tuition and other educational expenses for low-income students, and force private schools with 50 or more students receiving ESAs to publicize their test scores. However, as The Arizona Republic notes, most private schools would not meet that criteria in the first place.
Opponents of the ESA expansion argue that the legislation will essentially dismantle Arizona's public education system by diverting desperately needed funding from public schools to private-schools. These critics also contend that the reallocation of state funding could hurt efforts to keep educators in public school.
Meanwhile, those in favor of the ESA expansion claim that it is actually providing families with more options.
"We’ve got something here that is helping families where their child wasn’t a fit in their local school," said Goldwater Education Director Jonathan Butcher according to The 74. "ESAs are bringing something to families that they didn’t have before, that they weren’t able to find in the traditional school system."
Arizona's expanded ESA program likely means it will become the epicenter of a national debate over school vouchers. Over the next few years, defenders of public education will be paying especially close attention to teacher attrition rates and district-wide cuts to academic and extracurricular programs. Advocates will likely focus on examples of ESA recipients who made tremendous academic gains in private school settings.
Article by Navindra Persaud, Education World Contributor.