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Ariz. Expands School Choice Beyond Students With Disabilities

Just a year after Arizona lawmakers created a school choice and scholarship program for students with disabilities, the program has been expanded to other groups of students, doubling its potential reach.

On Monday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a measure that expands eligibility for empowerment scholarship accounts, which can be used to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, or saved and spent on college tuition.

Earlier this year I wrote about how school choice programs, especially private school vouchers, often begin with students with disabilities. Those programs, largely unchallenged, are then expanded to include other groups of students.

Why? Generally, it comes across poorly to protest programs intended for students with special needs, several experts told me at the time.

The additions to the Arizona program will allow the children at D-graded schools, children of active duty members of the military, and children adopted out of the foster care system to qualify for a scholarship account, said Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute, a free-market think tank based in Phoenix. He helped craft the bill, and tweak it, after Brewer initially vetoed it. (Students at F-graded schools would be eligible too; Arizona just doesn't have any of those yet.)

These students would be able to use the accounts for the first time during the 2013-14 school year and will boost the number of students eligible to about 200,000, Butcher said, with most of the additional students coming from D-graded schools. Brewer, the Goldwater Institute's education director, had said offering those students choice was a priority. Already, Arizona students can choose to attend any public school, although transportation is typically provided only if students attend their neighborhood school.

The 150 students with disabilities who have signed up for accounts have received on average about $13,000, but other students will get less, about $3,400, Butcher said, because of the way state funding works.

"Thanks to this program's expansion, more students in Arizona will be able to customize their education—something we could have only dreamed of just five years ago. We're not talking about just choosing a different school, but a complete school experience specifically designed for each student," Butcher said in a press release. "This is the future of education in the U.S."

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