Thousands of families in Arizona and West Virginia have received welcome news in recent days after challenges to each state’s new education savings account (ESA) program were thwarted.
In West Virginia, the state’s Supreme Court of Appeals took up a case aimed at halting the Hope Scholarship Program, a significant ESA program that allows 93% of students to participate statewide. Opponents claimed that the program violated the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system of free schools” and had won a lower court injunction blocking the program despite over 3,000 families having already applied or been approved for a scholarship. Early last week, however, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals overruled the lower court, concluding that the Hope Scholarship Program is constitutional and can take effect immediately.
In Arizona, opponents launched a referendum petition drive aimed at temporarily halting the Empowerment Scholarship Program’s expansion to all Arizona students until voters could have a say in 2024. These efforts were led by a group called Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS), which forced a referendum and defeated a previous expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Program a few years ago (though that expansion was hotly debated as it included strict caps on participation that drew bipartisan opposition). This time around, SOS failed to gather the required number of signatures to force a referendum — a sign of the Empowerment Scholarship Program’s support among Arizona voters. Today, 22,500 Arizona families have applied to participate.
Recent polling from EdChoice shows that 81.3% of parents support education savings account programs, or ESAs, like the Hope and Empowerment scholarships. ESAs allow eligible families to spend their student’s portion of state education funding on a wide variety of approved educational expenses such as private school tuition, standardized testing fees, specialized therapies for students with a disability, and tutoring services. The idea is to recognize that not every school or learning environment is going to be the best fit for every student, so public education dollars should be flexible enough to allow a student to learn in whatever manner is best for them. This is not to say that public schools and teachers are “bad” or “not doing their jobs.” If a family finds that their public school is the best place for their children to learn, as many do, then they are free to keep using it and that student’s public funding is unchanged.
Arizona and West Virginia responded to the strong demand among parents in their states for more education freedom by creating the two most expansive ESA programs in the country. They represent the best examples of how states can and are rethinking American education — shifting away from the misguided “one size fits all” approach that we have historically taken to instead focus on freedom and choice, thus ensuring that every student in America is put in the best position to succeed whether that be a private school, home school, or virtual school.
There are plenty of education-related topics being discussed as we head into the midterm elections. Whether it’s contentious curriculum, falling test scores, or in-person vs. emergency-remote learning, all of these topics have one thing in common — an underlying demand among families for more freedom and choice in their children’s education. With West Virginia and Arizona leading the way, 2023 promises to be another major year for education freedom as even more states look to put parents and families in charge.
• Andrew Handel is the Education and Workforce Development Task Force director at the American Legislative Exchange Council.
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