Arizona Becomes First State to Pass Universal Student Scholarships

In 2011, Arizona became the first state to create an education savings account (ESA) program. Initially, the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program was limited to students with special needs, but the legislature has gradually expanded the program over the years to include students in underperforming schools, siblings of scholarship recipients, military families, and foster students. Now, thanks to the state legislature’s passage of HB 2853, every student and family in the state is poised to become eligible for the program.

Arizona lawmakers were able to pass the bill after finding a compromise: If the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program is universally expanded, then a separate bill authorizing an additional $400 million in public school funding is triggered. Such an increase is possible thanks to the state’s sound fiscal practices and Arizona’s $5.3 billion budget surplus this year. According to ALEC’s Rich States, Poor States, Arizona currently ranks third in the nation for economic outlook.

This latest effort to create a universal ESA program comes five years after the legislature passed a different bill to gradually expand eligibility over a number of years, eventually culminating in all students and families being eligible. Opponents of education freedom, led by Save Our Schools Arizona, were able to gather enough petition signatures to trigger a veto referendum by the voters. Unfortunately, the expansion was defeated at the ballot box as voters were seemingly confused about the ballot language and effect of the legislation. House Majority Floor Leader Ben Toma, who led the effort this year to make the program universal, noted that supporters of ESAs, including himself, voted against the expansion five years ago. While the previous law did eventually make all students eligible, it capped the actual number of scholarships that could be awarded. 

Save Our Schools Arizona is expected to once again launch a petition drive aimed at forcing the law into a veto referendum. Should they be successful in gathering the signatures, the expansion is placed on hold until voters weigh in during the 2024 elections. Today, polling shows that 66% of Arizona adults support ESAs. Among school parents, that number shoots up to 75% support. 

Arizona’s effort follows West Virginia’s groundbreaking creation of the Hope Scholarship Program last year, which was led by ALEC Board of Directors member Senator Patricia Rucker. Hope Scholarships are now available to 93% of West Virginia families, with the only requirement being that students must be enrolled in a public school to participate. It’s estimated that 3,600 students could participate in the program’s first year. 

ALEC’s Education and Workforce Development Task Force will consider model policy at next month’s Annual Meeting that replicates the Hope Scholarship Program’s provisions but makes all students eligible to participate. 

In Depth: Education

An excellent education has long been recognized as key to the American Dream. Unfortunately, the current monopolistic and expensive K-12 education system is failing our students, leaving them unprepared for college, careers, or life. Similarly, our higher education system is leaving students with higher debt burdens and fewer career guarantees…

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