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Saturday, June 25, 2011

School Choice in Arizona

This blog has mentioned school-choice programs in Oklahoma and Ohio The Goldwater Institute's Jonathan Butcher writes in The Arizona Republic:
Starting July 1, the Arizona Department of Education will screen applications for a new school choice program for special-education students. These education savings accounts will provide families with 90 percent of the funds that would have been used at a public school to teach their special-needs children. Parents can use this money for a variety of educational expenses, including speech or instructional therapy, tutoring, online programs and tuition. An estimated 17,000 Arizona families may be eligible for education savings accounts.

Nationally, school choice programs are filling a void for children whose special needs are often overlooked. Since 1999, Florida has offered a successful program for special-education students. Today, more than 21,000 students attend the school of their choice through the McKay voucher program. National comparisons show fourth-graders in the McKay program are reading at higher levels than the national average for special-needs students. Similar programs exist in Ohio, Georgia, Utah and Oklahoma.

This year, 42 states have introduced legislation to create or expand school voucher and scholarship tax-credit programs. Of the legislation considered by state lawmakers, 27 bills would create or expand programs for students like Lexie.

Arizona's program is unique among these because parents have the freedom to purchase additional services and materials if they choose, and they do not have to use the account for tuition. With the spread of online programs and virtual schools, parents have even more flexibility to find the right educational setting for their child. Families can also use the accounts to save for college. Parents will decide what programs and services are best for their children.

In April, the Institute for Justice provided some background:
The Arizona Empowerment Account Program is simple and straightforward. In exchange for a parent’s agreement to provide an education for their child in at least the subjects of reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science—and not enroll their child in a school district or charter school or accept a tax credit scholarship—the state will make quarterly deposits into an Arizona Empowerment Account up to an amount equivalent to 90 percent of the base support that a public school would have received to educate the child. Among other options, those funds can be used to pay tuition or fees at a private school, to purchase textbooks required by the private school, pay for educational therapies or services for the child from a licensed or accredited practitioner or provider, and to hire an accredited tutor to provide tutoring services. Upon the child’s high school graduation, any remaining funds may be used to pay for the child’s education in an eligible college or university. The program is available only to families of children with disabilities, but otherwise there is no cap on participation in the Arizona Empowerment Account Program.

The Arizona Empowerment Account is an improvement over its predecessor, Lexie’s Law, a corporate tax credit program that the Arizona Legislature passed in 2009. Lexie Law’s permits corporations and insurance companies to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on their income or premium taxes respectively. The program is capped at $5 million, but unfortunately in 2009, the most recent year for which public reports are available, the tax credit program raised a mere $781,000.