Two ESA bills get House support in AZ

Part 64 of 64 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Arizona lawmakers are pushing measures to expand the state’s education savings account program, which allow parents to tailor their child’s education and save for college.

A bill that would expand ESA eligibility to more military families passed a voice vote on the House floor with “no amendments, no controversy, no hostile amendments run,” said Sydney Hay. The bill has bipartisan support and could get a final House vote as early as Monday.

ESAs: ESAs would give more options to families hoping to tailor their child’s education.

Another bill would expand eligibility to preschool students with special needs and siblings of those students using ESAs. It passed the House appropriations committee and could pass the House in a week to 10 days, Hay said.

A pair of companion bills — one in the House and one in the Senate — would expand eligibility to students in Title I schools, or schools with at least 40 percent of students living in poverty. Sponsors of those bills are waiting for the “right time” to move forward with them, Hay said. If both pass, they could meet on the governor’s desk.

Hay is a government affairs representative for American Federation for Children who has lobbied and worked with Arizona lawmakers on school-choice bills since 1997.

The original ESA law, passed in 2011, contained a cap on new enrollment – half a percent of the public school population can newly enroll each year. For 2013-14 school year, about 230,000 students were eligible for the program, but only 5,400 places were available.

The cap is in place until 2019.

Lawmakers could raise the cap, Hay said Wednesday.

“I would expect the cap will be extended this session and raised, so in exchange for keeping a cap on the program the program will have a higher cap,” she said.

Some lawmakers oppose ESAs; others support them but are nervous 2019 could usher a flood of new students into the program, a rapid growth that may not be sustainable.

“I think the cap definitely needs to be addressed,” said Lindsey Burke, Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation.

This school year, about 730 students are using the program, leaving some 4,700 open positions.

“They’re still in that education process in terms of educating the public on the option that’s now available to them,” Burke said.

She said she expects ESA participation to grow after word gets out.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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