New school choice bill steadily expands eligibility for education savings accounts to all Ariz. children

Legislators also call for greater program accountability and transparency 

PHOENIX (Jan. 30, 2017) — Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, introduced SB1431 today, which if approved, would create a major expansion of school choice in Arizona. Sen. Lesko’s bill broadens eligibility in the education savings account program, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), making ESAs an option for every Arizona public school student within the next four years. The bill also adds increased accountability to the program by requiring standardized testing of ESA students.

“Sen. Lesko’s bill will create a powerful resource all parents can turn to if they ever need to make a change in their child’s education,” said Kim Martinez, communications director for the Arizona Federation for Children. “If passed, this means no Arizona child will be trapped in a school that isn’t working for them.”

“We know that over 80 percent of families will always choose to send their child to their local neighborhood public school,” said Sen. Lesko. “But there are some children who will need a different school or curriculum than what their neighborhood public school offers so the ESA program is a life-line for them.”

Currently, approximately one-third of Arizona children are eligible for ESAs and, thus far, about one percent of them have opted to use an ESA. Supportive legislators expect consistency in the numbers and anticipate about one percent of all Arizona school children will opt into the ESA program if the expansion passes. The added accountability via standardized testing, while still protecting the autonomy of private schools and home schooling, will be a popular component as the bill moves through the legislature.

A second ESA bill, SB1281, aims to further improve the program by adding transparency over ESA state funds. Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, is sponsoring the administrative bill that will make program expenditures available for public viewing online. This will enable the public to see at any moment how much has been spent on tuition, tutors, curriculum, college savings and so forth. Also posted online, any amount misspent and how much of the funds were recouped by the state.

“Every state program should operate with this same light of day,” said Sen. Smith. “Our ESA program will lead the way.”

For more on who qualifies for ESAs and how the program works, visit the Arizona Department of Education ESA page.

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