IMPORTANT: It's a Serious Matter of Life

Universal school choice moves forward in Arizona

Arizona is closer to allowing all students to take most of the tax dollars devoted to their attendance and bring it with them to a school of their choice, but some lawmakers question whether taxpayer funds are properly monitored.

Republican votes carried House Bill 2853 out of the Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. If enacted, the measure would allow an estimated 1.1 million additional Arizona students to participate in the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. It allows a family to charge approved educational expenses, including private school tuition, to a taxpayer-funded account.

Legislative analysts estimate 25,000 students would use the expanded program, up from 11,725 current ESA students. The average ESA spends $6,400, analysts said.

Currently, Arizona students qualify for ESA by being: disabled, attending a “D or F letter grade” school, a previous ESA or Arizona Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program recipient, a child of an active military member or one who was killed in service, a ward of the state, the sibling of a current or previous ESA recipient, a resident of a reservation, or have a parent who is legally blind, deaf or hard of hearing.

Opponents of the bill point to a lack of oversight in the purchases approved in the name of educating students.

“One was an inflatable bounce castle for $500, A 7-cubic foot freezer … a $1,300 air filter, a Tonal home exercise gym – one of those high-tech things – it was $3,000 and hooks to the wall,” said Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Phoenix. “This is allowed under the handbook if you have a curriculum that says you need these things.”

Other GOP members have said they share similar concerns about the lack of oversight with taxpayer dollars spent under the ESA program.

“This is not about private versus public education. It’s about parents getting a choice for their children, the best choice that they can make,” Majority Leader Ben Toma said of his bill. “The ESA program can be used for tutors. It can be used for all kinds of individual needs that the children have.”

The state is home to the nation’s most expansive educational freedom laws, according to multiple comparisons of states.

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