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Proposed Bill Would Expand Arizona School Choice Program

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A proposed bill in Arizona would greatly expand eligibility for a school choice program first enacted in 2011.

Legislation proposed in both chambers would allow all public school students to use state funding to switch to a private school or home school through Arizona's education savings account program.

Sound familiar?

If you've been following the passing and implementation of Nevada's sweeping education savings account program, then it should.

Nevada made headlines in June when it became the first state to pass an ESA program— which gives parents unprecedented control over how state education dollars are spent on their children's education—that's open to all public school students, regardless of income or disability status.

However, the idea for education savings accounts originated in Arizona five years ago as a way for school choice advocates to get around a state supreme court decision that deemed traditional vouchers unconstitutional. (Here's an explainer on the difference between vouchers and education savings accounts).

Initially offered to only students with disabilities, Arizona's program has since been expanded to include several other groups such as students in foster care, on Indian reservations, with parents in the military, and zoned a low-performing schools. However, several Democrat and Republican lawmakers in the state joined together last year to block the program from expanding to include all public school students, according to the Associated Press

As I wrote for Education Week last year, critics of vouchers see targeting private school choice programs to students with special needs is a savvy way to get a bill passed. From there, proponents can slowly expand the program to include broader swaths of the student population. "It's the camel's nose under the tent," Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center and an education policy professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, told me.

This most recent bill in Arizona wouldn't open the program up to all public school students immediately. Rather, it would phase in the expansion through school year 2018-19, starting first with students in kindergarten through 5th grade. Additionally, it would maintain a tight cap—one-half of one percent of the 1.1 million public school students—on the number of students who can participate also through 2019, according to the Associated Press.

"That's a pragmatic way to go about a program like this," says Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative public policy and advocacy group whose legal arm has defended ESAs in both Arizona and Florida. "Let's phase it in over a couple of years so that the agency can keep up with the growth of the program."

Nevada's program, which had no such phase-in period, received over 1,000 applications in the first 10 days of the application period, stirring up concern that there wouldn't be enough private school seats to meet demand as well as significant pushback from private school parents who felt they were unfairly disqualified from the program.

A judge recently put implementation of Nevada's program on hold until lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of education savings accounts are resolved. 

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