During the Nov. 6 midterm elections, voters across the nation decided on a myriad of ballot measures. In Arizona, one of the nation’s leaders in implementing school choice policies, voters defeated Proposition 305, which would have gradually extended eligibility for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Program (ESA) to all K-12 students over the next four years.
ESA’s are essentially savings accounts that families can use to purchase an education best suited for their children. Public dollars that would have been allocated for the child at a traditional public school are instead deposited in the account, giving parents the freedom to enroll in a private school, hire tutors, pay for online classes, or pay for any other authorized service their child needs. They are a recent innovation in school choice policy—with Arizona creating the first program of its kind only in 2011.
Proposition 305 was a veto referendum on SB 1431, which the Arizona State Legislature passed in 2017. The bill authorized an expansion plan that would end with all students in Arizona being eligible to use ESAs by the 2020-2021 school year. It also strengthened administrative oversight of the ESA program, improving accountability standards to reduce fraudulent and/or inappropriate spending of the accounts’ funds.
Save Our Schools Arizona, the organization primarily responsible for collecting the signatures to get Prop. 305 on the ballot, has strongly opposed the expansion of school choice in Arizona over the past decade. They claim charter schools, tax credit scholarships, and ESAs are all “draining” resources from the state’s traditional public school districts.
School choice programs in Arizona, however, remain remarkably popular and 50 percent of the state’s students now attend a school that is not their district-assigned public school. Many disadvantaged Arizona students are benefiting from increased school choice options. Students with disabilities, from military families, and from low-performing schools comprised 82 percent of Arizona’s ESA applicants in 2017. Additionally, a survey of 39 of 42 studies reviewed by EdChoice in 2017 found that school choice policies are also saving taxpayers money.
With voters defeating Proposition 305, state legislators may focus on improving the ESA program. Eventually, as multiple Auditor General reports have noted, Arizona will need to improve oversight for the program to ensure the flexible account funds are spent only on approved services. Legislators could potentially remove a provision that currently caps participation growth at 5,000 additional students per year.
School choice advocates and legislators may need to do a better job of explaining ESAs. An October 2018 poll of 500 Arizona voters found that there was widespread confusion about what the ballot measure would do. After providing an in-depth explanation of Prop. 305 to a Democrat, an independent, and a Republican, pollsters found that each of them would have changed their original positions had they better understood the ballot measure. Since the ESA expansion may be voted on again in the next legislative session Prop. 305’s defeat may only be a temporary setback for Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Program.