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Will a 'School Choice for All' Program Survive the Ballot Box in Arizona?

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Arizona voters will have the final word this November on whether the state can move forward with an ambitious plan to expand eligibility for a school voucher program to every student in the state.

The state's high court said Wednesday it will not stop a voter referendum on the issue.

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This means that the second attempt nationally to open up vouchers to all students—a major priority for school choice advocates—is on increasingly thin ice.

Last year Arizona lawmakers passed a bill that would eventually make all of the state's 1.1 million public school students eligible for education savings accounts—a voucher-like program created in 2011 that allows students to use public money not only for private school tuition, but also home schooling, tutoring, and therapy expenses. However, while eligibility for the program would be greatly expanded, it would be capped at about 30,000 students, at least for now.

If the program, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, survives the ballot challenge and actually starts distributing money to families, it will become the first in the country to offer private school choice to all public-school students without restrictions. Similar programs in other states are limited to specific groups of students, such as those from low-income families or those with disabilities, among other classifications.

School choice advocates are eager to see private school choice spread beyond small subgroups and into the general student population. Beyond philosophical reasons—that parents should have a wealth of educational choices beyond their neighborhood public school—there are practical reasons for expanding private school choice to more students. The more families that benefit from a program, the more built in support it has among lawmakers' constituents, making it politically harder to roll back or disband.

Only one other state has attempted to open up a private school choice to all students in the state. That was Nevada, where lawmakers passed a law creating a universal private school choice program in 2015. That state's supreme court ultimately ruled that the program was unconstitutionally funded. A legislative effort in Nevada to revive the law by changing the funding stream stalled last year. 

Education savings accounts have been gaining favor over traditional vouchers with advocates and pro-school choice policymakers, but the relatively new idea has yet to really catch on nationally.

Arizona lawmakers, however, were waiting in the wings with their proposal to expand eligibility for their state's education savings account program.

But a group opposing the new law called Save Our Schools Arizona gathered enough signatures to put it to voter referendum, which is allowed by Arizona's constitution, according to the Associated Press. Voucher supporters, backed by the American Federation for Children, a group formely led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, sued to block the effort, but were rebuffed by both a lower court judge and the Arizona Supreme Court.

Although a setback for voucher supporters, the effort to expand the scholarship program is by no means over in Arizona.

You can expect campaigns for and against vouchers to ramp up ahead of the midterm elections. The billionaire libertarian activist Koch brothers have already thrown their support behind the voucher expansion initiative by circulating pro-voucher advertisements.

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