AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
After a drawn-out battle and much heel-dragging from elected Democrats and liberal activists, Arizona is finally on its way to enacting an expansive school choice bill that Governor Doug Ducey signed into law more than two months ago. With education continuing to be a top concern for most voters, Arizona’s new policy could set the standard for the rest of the country when it comes to school choice and go a long way toward combatting the systemic failures of America’s public school system.
In July, Ducey signed a statewide expansion of Arizona’s school-choice program that provides parents the option to receive roughly $7,000 per year per student to apply toward the educational institution of their choice through Educational Savings Accounts (ESA). Though the ESA program has existed in Arizona since 2011, it was previously limited to students with learning disabilities, districts with low-performing schools, or children living on Indian reservations.
Now, every student has the option to use state funding for a school of their choice, rather than that money only going toward their local public school. While other states have similar programs that are also limited in scope, Arizona is the first state to offer the ESA program to all K-12 students.
Almost immediately after Ducey signed the law, the teachers’ union-backed group SOS Arizona announced they would do everything possible to oppose its implementation. According to Arizona law, if 5% of the turnout of the most recent gubernatorial election (in this case 118,823 voters) signs onto what is known as a “veto referendum” within 90 days of a bill’s enactment, the measure is paused and placed on the ballot in the next general election (2024).
In coordination with the anti-school choice activists, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs – the Democratic nominee for governor and a staunch opponent of school choice – stopped processing the more than 10,000 early applications for the ESA program. Both Hobbs and the activists had reason to be confident; back in 2018, they successfully killed a much smaller attempt to expand the ESA program. Needing just 5% of the electorate to effectively kill the bill for two more years, it seemed a major setback for the school choice movement was looming.
This time around, however, the proponents of school choice were better prepared. Though the union-backed group formally submitted 141,714 signatures, 19% more than were needed to advance the referendum, less than 89,000 were accepted. It seems that despite their best efforts, the anti-school choice special interests were unable to convince even 5% of the Arizona electorate that the law needed to be sent to the ballot.
Hobbs finally admitted defeat last Friday and announced that the school choice bill would officially become the law of the land in the Grand Canyon State. Hobbs has 20 business days to unfreeze the program.
This resounding school choice victory has major implications for the rest of the country. As other states look to provide parents an alternative to public schools, Arizona has laid the groundwork for a system which both incentivizes public schools to perform better and empowers families to choose the school that works best for them.
This is good news for America’s youth, whose achievement has declined in recent years, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, American youth test scores have lagged behind the rest of the developed world. COVID-19 may have accelerated the decline, but it was in motion long before the first lockdowns. Instead of focusing on curriculum or improving the quality of education, the priority of most schools seems to be to shift away from grading and test scores entirely in favor of “social conditioning” and woke indoctrination. The National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the country, for example, argues on its website that standardized testing is fundamentally and foundationally based in racism and white supremacy.
Arizona’s school choice law may also have ripple effects on elections elsewhere in the country, particularly as Democrats see how popular the policy is. In Pennsylvania, another battleground state, Democrat Josh Shapiro has “quietly endorsed private school choice.” While he has not publicly spoken on the matter, he has added sections to his campaign website that assert his support of School-Choice programs. Other Democrats have also been largely silent on the matter, undoubtedly realizing that public polling consistently shows overwhelming support for school choice programs.
For all the bad-faith accusations teachers’ unions have lodged against the Arizona law, it is actually likely to improve public school education in the state. Arizona spends an average of $11,000 per student on education expenses. The school choice vouchers are for $7,000. The remaining $4,000 will still go toward public schools. So not only will the new policy increase the average rate of funding per student that remains in public schools, it will also decrease pressure on already overcrowded schools, giving teachers more one-on-one time with their students – what teachers’ unions claim to want.
Arizona’s new school choice policy has the potential to spark a great renaissance in American education. By allowing dollars to follow students and not schools, the unique needs of families are prioritized over the demands of woke teachers’ unions and activist-minded education bureaucrats – something every taxpayer should cheer.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.
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