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Arizona Lawmakers Scale Back Private School Choice Expansion Plan

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A bill that originally would have extended Arizona's education savings account program to all public school students has been scaled back, according to the Associated Press. 

Education savings accounts come from the voucher family of school choice programs but have broader application: They allow families to use state money toward private school tuition, home schooling materials, and other approved education-related expenses. They only exist in a handful of states.

The ESA program in Arizona was originally created for students with disabilities but it has since been expanded to include students from failing schools, foster families, military families and those living on tribal lands. 

The newly retooled bill would expand the program to include children from families who qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meals program—which would be a little more than half of the state's 1.1 million public school students by the time the expansion is phased in by 2020, according to Jonathan Butcher, the education director at the Goldwater Institute, the right-leaning think tank where the idea for ESAs was first conceived. 

That's not as generous as the initial bill, which would have expanded eligibility to all the state's public school children over the next five years, but it's still significant.

The original bill passed the Senate last month but stalled in the House until the House Appropriations Committee passed the pared-down expansion bill this week. 

Who Uses Education Savings Accounts? 

An Arizona Republic analysis found that most of the students using ESAs qualify for the program based on their disability status and that most of them are leaving wealthy, high-performing public schools for private schools.

Those findings echo a similar analysis the Las Vegas Sun conducted of Nevada's ESA program, which is the first and only one in the country that is open to all public school students. The Sun Times found that most of the applications for the state's ESA program came from wealthier families. 

(To read the stories of some of the families that use ESAs in Arizona and Florida, check out this story I wrote for Education Week last year.)

Nevada's ESA program has since been put on hold by a judge while it's determined whether the program is constitutional. 

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, a measure to create a universal ESA program there came to a standstill earlier this year after Republican leadership said neither chamber would consider the legislation this legislative session.  

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