Empowerment Scholarship Accounts

Overview

Parents are primarily responsible for the education of their children and have the right to make educational decisions for their children. Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) supports a parent’s right to choose from a wide variety of school options, including public, charter, private, online, or home education. Parents are in the best position to make these choices, as they are most familiar with the personalities, learning styles, and interests of their children.

In keeping with Arizona’s position as a leader in the nation for fostering school choice options for parents, Arizona established the CAP-supported Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program. This innovative new option for Arizona families further cements Arizona as the leader in school choice options for parents.

Issue Analysis

In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down a voucher program for students with special needs. Immediately after the decision, Governor Jan Brewer convened a special session calling for the enactment of a tax-credit-funded scholarship program to help these students (Lexie’s Law). But that credit did not generate significant sums of money – certainly not enough to help all of the students who were depending on the voucher programs and the many more who had hoped to take advantage of the programs.

However, the Court left the door open by saying, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution.”[1] Taking them at their word, a new idea came about – education savings accounts, or Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), where parents can direct the money in the account toward a host of educational expenses beyond just tuition at private schools. CAP and its attorneys were heavily involved in the drafting and development of this program.

Each ESA provides funding that parents can use on tuition at a qualified school, textbooks, curriculum, and even fees for standardized tests. Any funding that remains following the completion of school can be used on similar costs in a postsecondary institution.

As originally passed in 2011, the ESA program was only available to students with special needs. Since then, Arizona has expanded those qualified for the program, and it now includes students in a school or school district with an achievement profile grade of “D” or “F”, students previously participating in the Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities program, students in foster care who were adopted or who have a plan for permanent adoption, and children whose parents are in the United States military. The program is also open to incoming kindergarteners who would otherwise qualify under one of these categories.

Guaranteeing the state saves money, the program is limited to students currently in public school (as well as incoming kindergarteners), and the original program called for the amount deposited in each account to be only 90% of the state aid the student would have otherwise generated for a public school. In 2013, the Arizona Legislature changed the funding formula in order to allow parents to have more resources, while still saving money for the state and local property taxpayers.[2]

Litigation

Several groups, including the Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Board Association, filed a lawsuit to challenge the program and sought an injunction to freeze the funds awarded to the students. The program was upheld in superior court in late 2011, and on October 1, 2013, a three-judge panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the program as constitutional.[3]

Although this case will likely proceed to the Arizona Supreme Court, parents must be made aware of this groundbreaking program, especially since two courts have now ruled it to be constitutional.

Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts will go a long way to ensure that parents have as many options as possible for educating their children in the way they see fit.

Talking Points

  • Education policy should put students first. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts put students first by ensuring families are able to choose the best educational option for their child.
  • Empowerment Scholarship Accounts save the state money. Schools would face significantly higher costs if children with special needs were to be forced back into the public schools. The amount that can go into an ESA is limited to 90% of what the state would have spent on the student, so the cost of the tax credit is more than offset.
  • When it comes to education, one size doesn’t fit all. That’s why it’s important for parents to have options when deciding how to educate their children.

Conclusion

Parents should have as many options as possible for how they wish their children should be educated. The CAP-supported Empowerment Scholarship Account program takes Arizona one step closer to achieving this result.

 

© January 2014 Center for Arizona Policy, Inc. All rights reserved.
This publication includes summaries of many complex areas of law and is not specific legal advice to any person. Consult an attorney if you have questions about your specific situation or believe your legal rights have been infringed. This publication is educational in nature and should not be construed as an effort to aid or hinder any legislation.


[1] Cain v. Horne, 220 Ariz. 77, 84, ¶ 29, 202 P.3d 1178, 1185 (2009).

[2] S.B. 1363, 2013 Leg., 51st Leg., 1st Reg. Sess., (Ariz. 2013) available at www.azleg.gov/legtext/51leg/1r/laws/0250.pdf (changing the calculation to be based on the per-student funding formula for students in charter schools, which increases the amount of the typical ESA from $3,800 to approximately $5,400 per year).

[3] Niehaus v. Huppenthal, 1 CA-CV 12-0242 (Ariz. App. 2013), available at http://azcourts.gov/Portals/0/OpinionFiles/Div1/2013/1%20CA-CV%2012-0242.pdf.