PHOENIX – All Arizona students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches could soon have access to new educational options as part of the state’s groundbreaking Education Savings Account program.
The Arizona Court of Appeals recently upheld a lower court’s ruling that Education Savings Accounts – which are essentially 90 percent of a student’s state education funding put in an account for parents to use for education expenses – do not violate Arizona’s constitutional ban on aid to private and parochial schools, the Arizona Daily Sun reports.
As a result, state Rep. Debbie Lesko and the Goldwater Institute are working to expand current eligibility requirements for the program to all students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The taxpayer-funded program “can pay for things like tuition and fees at private and parochial schools,” as well as classes at traditional public schools and charter schools, the news site reports.
The program basically expands on the concept of school choice by allowing parents to customize their children’s education. For example, they may choose to enroll their child in a great English class in a particular public school, but also in a reputable online social studies class.
The Arizona Education Association has fought bitterly against Education Savings Accounts, which are currently limited to students with special needs, those attending schools rated D or F by the state, or children of military families.
The AEA initially attempted to block the program in the state legislature, and later filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the accounts. A trial court judge ruled the program constitutional, and the Court of Appeals upheld that decision in October.
The case is expected to head to the state’s Supreme Court.
Regardless, the Goldwater Institute estimates about 240,000 students are currently eligible for the Education Savings Accounts, and that number would swell to 400,000 if the eligibility requirements are expanded, the Sun reports.
The AEA, of course, is concerned that the program could result in a mass exodus of students, and state funding, from public schools to private or religious schools. Such an exodus would obviously decrease demand for unionized teachers, because most private school employees are not unionized, and could potentially threaten the union’s dues revenue.
“On an individual basis, anybody would be supportive of a family’s right to choose,” AEA President Andrew Morrill told the Daily Sun. “But we have to balance that with an underfunded system that is making it difficult to educate over a million students.”
Goldwater’s Jonathan Butcher explained that the savings accounts are about a lot more than money, they’re about choice and opportunity for Arizona families.
“The idea is that, with a savings account, you can do something right now to change your child’s experience,” Butcher told the news site.
Expanding that opportunity to more Arizona families only makes sense, regardless of what it means for the teacher union.
Butcher explained that parents can send their children to any school using the Education Savings Accounts, public or private. Those parents will undoubtedly flock to the best schools or combination of schools, which will encourage all schools to strive for excellence to recruit students. Fewer students would presumably attend poor performing schools.
That might be bad news for the AEA, but it’s a winning proposition for thousands of Arizona families looking for better educational options for their children.