How we led the way on school choice in Arizona

The
Arizona
Legislature recently passed the most expansive school choice law in the nation, opening our Empowerment Scholarship Account eligibility to all school-age children without restriction. As majority leader in the Arizona House of Representatives, it was my privilege to sponsor the
legislation
and guide it to the finish line, delivering educational freedom to more than 1.1 million students.

I’m proud to continue the Arizona tradition of leading on school choice. In 1997, we were the first state with a tax credit scholarship program, and in 2011, we passed the nation’s first scholarship account law, which has slowly expanded to cover about a quarter of our students. We are now the first state with a truly universal account program. Essentially, parents who apply for an
account
may direct about $7,000 to expenses such as private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, educational therapies, and tutoring in exchange for not attending a public school or receiving a tuition tax credit scholarship.

While many scoffed at the notion that the Arizona Legislature could pass a universal account system with single-vote Republican advantages in both chambers, I sensed the time was right for bold choices on education. West Virginia
passed
a massive scholarship account expansion last year. Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa raised eyebrows when she successfully
supported
the defeat of eight incumbent Republicans in a recent primary election who opposed her school choice measure. Lawmakers are taking notice. It’s time to put school choice laws on the board of truth.

Despite the pandemic and culture wars boosting interest in school choice, victories here are not a fait accompli, even in red states. Conservatives must be focused yet flexible to achieve progress.

Public pressure alone wasn’t enough to pass account systems in Arizona. Well-meaning Republicans care about their local public schools and sympathize with their opposition. Rural lawmakers worry about how it affects their districts. Friday night lights are a
real thing
. You can call them RINOs, or you can try to respond to their concerns. In Arizona, we showed lawmakers the data: Though more than 250,000 students are currently eligible, just 11,000 or so use a scholarship account after a decade of existence. In areas with great public schools, there are often few account users.

The truth is these accounts won’t cripple public schools. But we think it will make them better. After years of unlimited district open enrollment and the highest percentage of students in charter schools in the nation, choosing your child’s school, instead of being directed by the government, is the norm here. The results:
Per the
Stanford Opportunity Project, Arizona schools lead the nation in academic growth for all students regardless of their economic status.

We
invested
more than $1 billion in our school finance formula this year, most of which was to show holdouts that we weren’t giving up on our public schools and were willing to deal. We were able to make that investment knowing it was buying radical reform, not because we were caving to cries from the Left about school funding. We know those demands are eternal. We remain focused on improving outcomes and making choice a reality for all students.

School choice opponents have been wrong for decades. Each advance is doggedly opposed because they know parents won’t easily relinquish freedom once enjoyed. Cynically, each proposal will be opposed under the guise that past expansions are now sufficient. In Arizona, there isn’t a politician of any stripe that would now dare publicly oppose open enrollment or charter schools; it’s woven into our fabric.

The opposition to school choice grows more desperate with each departure from the arcane system of government-directed enrollment. They are to be dismissed. For the reluctant supporters, they need to see the data, the outcomes, and the proud parents. And then, they need to be put on record. We did just that in Arizona, and I’m proud our Republican caucus stood together to get this done for students and parents. Now is the time for other states to join us.

Benjamin Toma is the majority leader in the Arizona House of Representatives.

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