Arizona expands school choice program

Part 98 of 97 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

Students shouldn’t have to lose their eligibility for a school choice program because their mother or father is killed in the course of military duty, says Arizona state Rep. Sonny Borelli.

His bill expanding the program to children of military members killed-in-action passed the Arizona Legislature and is awaiting a decision from Gov. Jan Brewer.

Arizona’s lawmakers passed two expansions to the state’s ESA program and could pass a third.

Lawmakers passed another expansion to the program — siblings of participants now qualify, and students who, because of a severe disability, attend early preschool will be eligible for the program in their early years, if Brewer signs the bill into law.

Another expansion, for children living in low-income zip codes, stalled in the state House after a companion bill passed a voice vote in the Senate. That expansion could be revived later this week, said Sydney Hay, a government affairs representative for American Federation for Children, who has lobbied and worked with Arizona lawmakers on school-choice bills since 1997.

The bill failed by only a few votes.

“There were a couple people that always vote for (school choice), but for one reason or another they all voted no. That was a surprise to the sponsor, a surprise to the speaker and a surprise to us,” Hay said.

The program, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or education savings accounts, allows parents of certain students to opt their child out of the public school system and instead use public money to tailor their child’s education. Parents can spend the money on various educational expenses, including textbooks, tutoring, educational therapy and private school tuition. Money rolls over year to year and can be saved for college.

Begun to help special needs students, the program has expanded to include students assigned to a public school with a D or F letter grade, children of active-duty military members and children adopted from the state’s foster care system.

“A lot of conservatives nationally — constitutional conservatives and libertarians — they all scream and shout about free markets and limited government, but I want to see where it tangibly makes people’s lives better,” said state Rep. Adam Kwasman, an Oro Valley Republican. “There’s no clearer example of this than school choice.”

“Liberty, plus tangible results, equals excellence. That’s what we’re going for — liberty and tangible results that people can feel and see and experience. It’s helping. It’s helping the poorest among us and the most needy among us in the best way possible,” he said.

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