Arizona Shows The Nation What Education Freedom Looks Like | Opinion

It is now clear that two years of unnecessarily long public school shutdowns have produced a massive learning loss. Equally clear is that students are better off when their families have lots of education options.

"It just wasn't working out while our school was closed," said Vanessa Ramirez, a single mom from Phoenix, Arizona. "Parents had to take our kids' education into our own hands."

Fortunately for Vanessa, this year her state made it much easier for parents to do just that.

Vanessa was able to use Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) to enroll her daughter in a private school that offered in-person instruction while her assigned public school remained closed. She thrived in her new school, so Vanessa kept her there even after her previous school reopened.

In July, Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation expanding access to ESAs to all students, making Arizona the gold standard for education choice. Now every family can get about $7,000 to spend on private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, curricular materials, online courses, educational therapy, and more.

The law has already proved popular among parents. Since the expansion, the Arizona Department of Education has received at least 7,800 new ESA applications due to the new universal eligibility. As of last fall, a total of 11,775 students were enrolled in the program.

The surge in ESA enrollment is even more remarkable considering that the application period opened just before school started—long after most families had made their enrollment decisions for the 2022-23 school year. A Morning Consult poll released last month found that 66 percent of Arizonans and 75 percent of parents of school-aged children support ESAs.

Families want education freedom, and Arizona is a national model for how to provide it. The state is ranked second overall, behind only Florida, in the Heritage Foundation's Education Freedom Report Card. The report surveys all 50 states and Washington, D.C., in the areas of education choice, academic transparency, regulatory freedom for schools, and a high return on investment for taxpayer spending on education. Arizona is ranked in the top five in three of the four categories.

Arizona state flag
CANYON DE CHELLY, AZ - MARCH 18, 2017: The Arizona state flag flies beside the United States flag at the Visitor Center at Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, Arizona. Established in 1931, the monument is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. The monument is entirely on Navajo tribal lands in northeastern Arizona. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

For education choice, Arizona is first in the nation. Even before the ESA expansion, Arizona led the nation for empowering families with education options, offering universal access to tax-credit scholarships for private school tuition and having the most students per capita nationwide enrolled in a charter school.

Studies find that education choice policies lead to higher levels of achievement and educational attainment, greater civic participation and tolerance, and lower levels of crime.

Choice policies even benefit students who remain in the district school system. Of 28 studies of the effects of education choice policies on the performance of district schools, 25 found statistically significant positive effects. No wonder then that Arizona has led the nation for academic growth on the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP).

Heritage ranked Arizona fifth in terms of academic transparency. State officials adopted a modest parent bill of rights a decade ago that affirms that a parent is a child's primary caregiver. Last year, Gov. Ducey signed a proposal that allows parents to review and provide input on sex education materials.

Arizona also ranked fifth for regulatory freedom. Arizona avoids top-down regulations on schools, relying instead on bottom-up accountability. Schools and teachers have a high degree of freedom to operate as they see fit, and parents provide accountability through their freedom to choose the learning environments that work best for their kids.

Arizona lawmakers' embrace of choice, transparency, and regulatory freedom has produced a solid return on investment, ranking 13th nationwide. Education spending has been held to reasonable levels, though the state's unfunded teacher pension liability represents 8.3 percent of its GDP. Although Arizona's scores on the NAEP are still middling, they've improved significantly over the past two decades, and Arizona's charter sector is competitive on the NAEP with the top states in the nation.

Unfortunately, Arizona's tremendous progress is at risk of being undone. Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS), a union-backed group that opposes education choice, is trying to gather signatures to refer the ESA expansion to the ballot. Its activists have been repeatedly caught misleading voters about the ESAs and their effects on traditional public schools. They've even allegedly used school district resources to push their ballot initiative, in apparent violation of state law.

Parents are fighting back. Rallying around the slogan "Decline to Sign," hundreds of ordinary moms and dads have been showing up at SOS signature-gathering locations to persuade their fellow citizens not to sign the petitions.

As for Vanessa, she's grateful for the opportunity the ESA has given her daughter and doesn't want to see anyone deprived of a similar opportunity. "Only if you have money, you're allowed to have access to a better education?" she asked, "That just doesn't sound right."

Jason Bedrick is a research fellow in the Heritage Foundation's Center for Education Policy. Jonathan Butcher is Heritage's Will Skillman Fellow in Education

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.