Arizona’s Groundbreaking Universal School Choice Bill is a Model for Change

A win for students, parents, and schools
Levi Meir Clancy, Unsplash
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Plummeting test scores. Declining enrollment. Soaring absenteeism. The public K-12 education system is facing an unprecedented crisis. It’s not a matter of funding; the U.S. already spends more per pupil than almost all its developed counterparts. The problem is those dollars are tied to school districts rather than students. This traps children of limited financial means in the public school nearest them, no matter how poorly it’s run. When a failing school is your only option, why bother attending?

It’s time we did away with this outdated funding model. Arizona’s new, first-of-its-kind universal school choice bill takes off those shackles and should serve as a model for nationwide reform.

Bill  HB2853 was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in July and gives all Arizona parents the ability to use the money that would go to their child’s local public school — currently about $7000 each — for private school tuition or other educational costs. This is beneficial for several reasons, not least of which is that children in Arizona are no longer locked into a school just because of where they live. If a school doesn’t align with the parents’ values or provide an environment conducive to learning, they can take their money elsewhere. As Gov. Ducey put it, “Our kids will no longer be locked in underperforming schools. Today, we’re unlocking a whole new world of opportunity for them and their parents.” 

If parents choose to send their children to a private school with tuition fees lower than the amount they receive — of which there are many — they can allocate the remainder towards other education-related expenses, like testing fees, tutoring services, online learning programs, and more. However, this program doesn’t just benefit students who choose to leave. There’s a lot of federal funding which isn’t affected by this bill that public schools will get to keep regardless of who leaves. That will increase the resources per pupil for those who choose to stay. With the passage of this bill, Arizona has successfully demonstrated that school choice isn’t just a slogan, but an economically and politically viable model for other states to replicate. 

Over the past two years, public school enrollment across the U.S. has fallen by a staggering 1.3 million students and chronic absenteeism has doubled. At the same time, American educational standards have repeatedly proven abysmal by world standards. The 2018 PISA test, an international exam administered to a representative sample of 15-year-olds, demonstrated that about 20% of American students scored below the reading skills expected of a 10-year-old. The National Assessment of Economic Progress (NAEP), which serves as a nationwide report card, recently reported its largest assessment decline in 50 years. The U.S. is putting in more money than just about everyone else into public schools, and so far, the return on that investment isn’t looking great. 

Unsurprisingly, failing public schools most significantly affect low-income students, who are more likely to attend under-resourced schools with dismal performance records. Schools with sub-50% graduation rates are all too common across the country, with many in dangerous and crime-ridden areas. It is hard to expect disadvantaged students to thrive in these environments, but without school choice they often have no alternative, reinforcing a cruel cycle of poverty. 

Ultimately, Arizona’s bill is a win for students, parents, and schools alike, and should set a clear example for others to follow. With student performance at multi-decade lows, state legislatures around the U.S. should be looking to place children where they are best poised to succeed. Tying funding to individuals instead of institutions is a key step toward ensuring that no student is stuck in a school that doesn’t align with their needs just because of their ZIP Code.

Aadi Golchha
Aadi Golchha is an economic commentator and writer, proudly advocating for the principles of free enterprise. He is also the host of The Economics Review podcast and a Young Voices Contributor.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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