Arizona's #EdDebitCard Begins Opening Doors to Choice and Personal Learning

One thing I like to keep my eye on, peering to the southwest, is the progress of Arizona’s unique and intriguing Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. Last time we checked, the ESA was one of two Arizona school choice programs set for expansion (unfortunately, the Corporate Tax Credit program expansion was vetoed).

The initial pool of students eligible for ESAs was relatively small (only those diagnosed with special learning needs), and the number of families who actually signed up for one of the Accounts was even smaller. A study commissioned by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and released this week, gives some insights into how the first families used them.

What’s neat about the ESA concept (described as #EdDebitCard, for fellow Twitter users) is that it funds students directly, but with greater flexibility than a traditional voucher. The assigned dollars for non-public school students who opt to participate can be used like a voucher to purchase private school tuition, or it can be used to purchase a combination of educational expenses — such as tutoring, therapies, or curriculum materials.

Funds are distributed to families quarterly, and their use is supervised by state agencies to prevent fraud. Families don’t have to spent down their Accounts, but can save dollars year-to-year, including ultimately for college expenses.

Interestingly, author Lindsey Burke found that just under two-thirds of the first 316 families used their ESA just like a voucher, able to enroll their children into “a wide variety of private schools,” 87 different schools to be exact. In all, about 85 percent of the ESA dollars spent went to cover these tuition costs.

The remaining 109 families customized their child’s learning with equal or greater variety, using the other 15 percent to buy special education therapies (62 families), tutoring (47 families), curriculum materials (39 families), and online courses (7 families). The unused dollars were set aside for future educational expenses.

As Burke explains in her conclusion, Arizona’s growing experiment with ESAs takes families to the next level of choice and customization in education, with opportunities for other states (ahem, Colorado!) to follow:

Such control over education funding ensures families have access to options that meet their children’s unique learning needs and move beyond the worthwhile goal of school choice to choice among education service providers, courses, teachers, and methods. That level of customization brings American K-12 education into the 21st century and ensures no child is relegated to the limited effectiveness of the existing monopolistic system that is all too prevalent in states across the country.

Surely there are some Colorado students and families who would stand to benefit by such a program. Guess we all know what’s standing in their way….