When it comes to educational choice, Arizona ranks highly, offering a range of options for students with varying needs and preferences. But not everybody is happy that families have such leeway in teaching their kids. Chief among the opponents of such freedom is Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, who is doing her best to herd kids into government-run institutions. She could do a lot of damage to what has been a healthy environment for education and learning.
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A Leader in Education Freedom
At the moment, Arizona parents and guardians pick traditional public schools across district lines, select among publicly funded but privately managed charter schools, educate their children at home, or have per-student funding follow learners to their chosen private schools.
“Arizona provides K–12 students and their families ample school choice options, including five private educational choice programs, charter schools, magnet schools, home schooling and public school choice via open enrollment,” EdChoice notes in its summary for the state.
In its 2024 EdChoice Yearbook, the organization ranks Arizona second after Florida for “the state that has the largest share of students choosing a non-public school option through a program like education savings accounts, vouchers or tax-credit scholarships.” The listing puts special emphasis on the state’s education savings accounts (ESAs) which were extended in 2022 to essentially all students.
“Part of what animated my run for governor in 2014 was universal school choice,” former Republican Gov. Doug Ducey told Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward last month. “The Milton Friedman idea that he shared on Free to Choose in his book and his PBS series is something that took me all eight years of my governorship to accomplish.”
The first effort to expand a limited ESA program was defeated at the ballot box by choice opponents, Ducey added. But then came COVID-19 “and parents were able to see what their kids were being taught or not taught and the level of rigor and expectation from the public schools. They also saw that the charter schools opened and the Catholic schools opened and many of the largest public districts chose to stay closed for nearly two years, even when the government was telling them to open. So we were able to pass universal educational savings accounts.”
Arizona’s ESAs (branded as “empowerment scholarship accounts”) let students take “90% of the state funding that would have otherwise been allocated to the school district or charter school” for use “to pay private school tuition, for curriculum, home education, tutoring and more,” according to the state’s Department of Education.
School Choice Wins a Popular Following
A May 2023 Common Sense Institute report found 56,000 participating students; in the months since, the number has risen to over 73,000.
“The median income of families in the ESA program as of December 31, 2022 is about $60,600,” the report noted. “The median income of families in Arizona with at least one child is $69,700. Meaning, on average, the typical family receiving an ESA is less well-off than the median Arizona family.”
Critics complain about the cost of students using partial education funding on chosen alternatives, but the state is actually spending less than anticipated on schools.
“Arizona has seen an enrollment decline of 80,000 students in the state’s public schools, relative to the pre-pandemic projections,” Jason Gaulden of the education-oriented Oak Rose Group and Katie Ratlief of the Common Sense Institute argue. “Because the state budgeted money for those students, expecting them to attend a public school, this generates substantial savings.”
This doesn’t sit well with Katie Hobbs, who squeaked into office against Trump-backed Republican Kari Lake, whose campaign spent more time rehashing the 2020 election than on policy. Hobbs began boosting government schools, and teachers’ unions, at the expense of education freedom.
Opposing Choice with Smears and Red Tape
“Arizona’s newly sworn-in governor has repeatedly said that she wants to reverse the state’s expansion of its school-choice program, arguing that Arizona should instead increase funding to public schools,” Reason‘s Emma Camp noted a year ago.
With Republicans favorably disposed towards school choice in control of the state legislature, Hobbs has attacked the legal basis for funding ESAs, sniped at the program over minor data breaches, and repeatedly sparred with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican, over the approval process for family education expenses.
“In this upcoming session…we must address the lack of accountability and transparency in Arizona’s ESA program,” Hobbs huffed two weeks ago in her State of the State address. “We have seen a steady stream of news coverage around unacceptable and sometimes downright outrageous use of taxpayer money under this program, including water park admissions, ski passes, and luxury car driving lessons.”
“My office already reviews all expense requests regardless of amount,” Horne mildly responded to the governor’s so-called reforms. He blames lax practices under his Democratic predecessor for complaints.
The governor also wants to require background checks of anybody teaching ESA students, fix tuition prices, impose instruction requirements, and subject recipients to strict red tape. No student could use an ESA until they attend a public school for 100 days, though families still have to pay taxes that fund them (good luck to new residents of the state). She also wants to do away with tax credits for donations to groups that pay private school tuition.
Arizona Leads in School Choice. But for How Long?
“ESAs strengthen ALL schools because competition delivers the best product—leading to better students, families, and communities,” observes the Arizona Free Enterprise Club. “That’s why the program has become so popular—and why Hobbs knows she has to hide behind a flood of regulations rather than pushing for a repeal or cap on it.”
“Gov. Hobbs policy proposal claims to improve the ESA program for the sake of parents, taxpayers, and students—particularly those with disabilities,” comments Matt Beienburg, Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute. “But let’s not forget that if the governor had had her way in 2011—when she voted against the original ESA program even for special education students—that thousands of students with special needs would still today be trapped in schools failing to serve their needs.”
Right now, Arizona is a national leader in educational freedom for students. Gov. Katie Hobbs is the living embodiment of all the control-freakery families escape when they exercise their power to reject government institutions and guide their kids’ learning.