The State of Nevada is known for having trail-blazed the development and expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are public funds which go directly to accounts parents can access for school choice options as diverse as private school, tutoring, textbooks, online courses and even a portion that can be saved for university.
Teacher unions and school bureaucrats have been natural opponents to the program and two outstanding Constitutional challenges have finally reached Nevada’s highest court. Arizona has endured similar challenges to its ESA legislation, overcoming claims that the program violated “The Blaine Amendment,” a provision in 37 state constitutions with roots in 1800’s discrimination against Catholics, which prohibits state funds going to sectarian schools.
ESA programs have legally fared better than traditional voucher programs and offer a more comprehensive approach to parental choice. Though voucher programs specifically compensate religious schools for providing services to lower-income families; ESAs provide accounts directly to parents. A parent may choose to use those public funds on a number of education services that are specially tailored to their children’s learning requirements. The difference is salient; public funds go to parents, not to schools.
In Arizona ESAs have been relegated to qualifying low-income students, students whose local public school is considered “failing”, students with disabilities, and most recently Native American students living on reservations. However, Empowerment Scholarships are completely changing the dialogue around education. With the growth of charter schools and alternative methods of schooling, parents are savvier about their children’s options and are demanding more choice and control.
Despite their prevailing sentiment, this competition is good for district schools too. Currently most states fund ESAs at a lower cost per student than public schools. But successful charter schools have proven a higher-quality education can be provided at lower costs with more efficiency. Challenging the monopoly on k-12 education by allowing more providers has put pressure on district schools to respond to parents and students. This is especially true for low income households who are tied to their district school by virtue of their zip code and where they can afford to live. These families have no viable way to provide a better education to their children other than these ESAs.
Nevada ESAs have successfully emerged from lower court challenges; school choice advocates are keeping a keen and optimistic eye on its final appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court. If Nevada is ultimately triumphant, Arizona will have another motivating example for expanding our own ESAs to every family in the state.