Arizona’s expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts a model for Maine and nation
The Arizona State Legislature recently passed a bill that will greatly expand access to the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, as well as allow families to spend the funds they receive on a wider range of education-related expenses.
As of now, 23% of Arizona students are eligible for the program and just shy of 12,000 students take advantage of it. Eligibility rules currently allow particular types of students to utilize ESAs – such as those who have disabilities, those who are assigned to failing school districts, and those are the children of active-duty military – but this legislation will allow for all 1.1 million Arizona K-12 students to take part in the program if they so choose. This bill also expands the list of purchases that can be made with ESA funds to include things like transportation to and from school and certain kinds of technology, such as laptops and microscopes.
The average amount awarded to students in Arizona for FY 2019 was $6,148. Given that the median tuition for a private elementary school in Arizona as of FY 2019 was $6,139, the funds provided through Arizona’s ESA program made private primary education accessible to all students, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status. Similarly, the median tuition for private middle schools in the state was $6,599, meaning that ESA funds would, generally speaking, cover 93% of the costs. The median tuition for private high schools in Arizona is significantly higher, but nonetheless, the average ESA award would cover about 60% of the bill.
In 2011, Arizona became the first state in the country to implement an ESA program. Since then, seven other states have adopted similar programs. As of 2021, there are nearly 30,000 students making use of ESAs nationwide.
Although many students are well-served by the public school system, some families require a greater degree of flexibility in order to provide their children with the best possible education. ESAs allow for public funding to follow students and support their education regardless of whether they excel in a public, private, or non-traditional learning environment.
While some express concern that ESAs divert funding from public schools, this is not the case. Since the establishment of Arizona’s ESA program, per-pupil public school funding, adjusted for inflation, has continually increased. In fact, usage of ESAs is directly responsible for increasing the per-pupil funds available to students in the public school system. In FY 2019, $654 per ESA participant was directed back into the public school system, meaning that more than $4.2 million in additional funding was made available to support public school students as a result of the state’s ESA program.
In addition to other school choice measures, namely Statewide Open Enrollment and charter school reforms, ESAs can serve as a valuable, and incredibly cost effective, means by which to provide choice to students who would thrive best outside the traditional public school system.
Maine families, now more than ever, would benefit greatly from the educational flexibility afforded by an ESA program. The decades-long trend of falling public school enrollment has persisted to the point that 16.7% fewer students are attending public schools today as compared to 2001, at least partially demonstrating a dissatisfaction with the current state of the system in addition to demographic trends. Performance statistics support these concerns. Among high school students, test scores and graduation rates have plateaued over the past several years, and college enrollment rates among graduating seniors dropped by nearly 10% between 2015 and 2020.
It’s time for Maine to consider implementing its own ESA program to give students in the state the opportunity to obtain a quality education best suited to their needs.
Broadly speaking, Maine could designate a new pot of money from which funds would be drawn for students opting into the ESA program. The amount of money allocated to each student would be determined by dividing the total amount of available funds in the pot – minus about 5% to cover administrative costs – by the total number of students participating in the program. This would ensure that, regardless of zip code, each ESA student would receive the same amount of money to cover their educational expenses.
In order to put money into that pot, the state would take between roughly 90% and 95% of the amount it spends per pupil in the student’s home school district. SAUs would, however, have the option to keep all of their state funding, but contribute approximately between 90% and 95% of the amount it spends per-pupil in combined state and municipal funds. Thus, approximately the same proportion of an SAU’s budget is redirected to the ESA fund regardless of which option is more financially sound for a particular district.
According to finance data from the 2021-22 school year, the vast majority of districts would ultimately opt to allow their state education dollars to be redirected to the ESA fund, but somewhere between 0 and 5 districts would likely choose to contribute a percentage of their total per-pupil spending.
If 5% of students across the state enrolled in this ESA program, and each SAU selected the most financially sound contribution option, assuming that the percentage of the per-pupil spending charged to districts was 93%, there would be an average of $238.72 per pupil retained by traditional public schools. Not only would Maine’s public schools not lose money per pupil as a result of this ESA program, but, in this scenario, their per-pupil spending would increase for each ESA enrollee. This would allow SAUs to retain more than $39 million in funding for students they would not have to educate inside their own districts.
Under these circumstances, each ESA student would receive $6,182.27. This award would cover the full cost of tuition at a number of private primary and secondary schools in Maine, while making others much more affordable for the average family. It would cover approximately 40% of the average private primary school tuition in the state and 20% of the average private secondary school tuition. It would also cover more than three times the nationwide average cost to homeschool a student.
By utilizing an online payment system similar to that which is employed in Arizona, the state would have the ability to monitor purchases made by families with ESA funds to ensure that the money is not being misappropriated. While the program should certainly allow families the flexibility to make any sort of educational purchase with their ESA dollars that they deem necessary, using an online payment system would ensure accountability and protect against fraudulent use of funds.
An ESA program such as this would be incredibly beneficial to Maine students who are currently attending public schools that are failing to meet their needs, for one reason or another, as it would give their families a greater degree of financial flexibility when it comes to education. Currently, parents who wish to provide their children with an education outside the public school system are essentially required to pay tuition twice – once to the public school system through their tax dollars which their child is not attending, and once again to the institution or program of their choice. The ESA program outlined above would help alleviate the additional cost to parents associated with providing their children with the best possible education available.
Importantly, this program would also lead to improvements in Maine’s public school system over time, as SAUs would be forced to compete to keep students in their schools. School boards would be encouraged to listen to parents and families in good faith and seriously consider their input. While some students would certainly continue to utilize the ESA program regardless of how high-quality an education is provided by their local public school, many would likely return to the public school system if tangible improvements were made. Therefore, public schools across the state would actively be incentivized to provide their students with the best possible educational experience.
Implementing an ESA program in Maine would be a huge step toward providing parents and families with the flexibility to exercise true choice when it comes to their children’s education. Education should, at its core, be student-focused. School choice policies, such as the ESA program outlined here, help to put educational decisions back into the hands of parents and to reframe the conversation to ask, first and foremost, what is in the student’s best interest.