It’s hard to find Aiden Yellowhair’s school on a map. He and his sister, Erin, are members of the Navajo Nation and attend the private St. Michael Indian School outside Window Rock, Ariz. The Catholic school’s website provides a helpful tip to follow Interstate 40 east from Flagstaff, but warns that “if you pass into New Mexico, you’ve gone too far.”
The remote location makes it easy to overlook St. Michael’s 400 students, but the school is an oasis on the 27,500-square-mile reservation. Only 66% of Arizona’s Native American high schoolers graduate in four years, a full 12 percentage points below the state average and nearly 20 points below the national average. At St. Michael, the principal says, 99% of students graduate and 98% of those attend college.
What allows Aiden and Erin to cover tuition at St. Michael is Arizona’s program for education savings accounts. Parents who take children out of public schools can opt in and receive, in a private account, a portion of the funds that the state would have spent on their education. Most students receive $5,000, but the deposits for children with special needs are roughly $14,000, depending on the diagnosis. That money can be used to pay for private-school tuition, tutoring, extracurricular activities, school uniforms and more.
Arizona created the program in 2011 for special-needs students, but since then lawmakers have slowly expanded eligibility—to children in military families, foster care, and failing schools, as well as those on Native American reservations. Today more than 3,300 students use the accounts, about 1% of those eligible.
Now the state has opened the gates to everyone. Last week Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that will give every public-school student in Arizona—1.2 million in all—an opportunity to apply to the program. New enrollment will be capped at about 5,500 students per year, up to a maximum of 30,000 in 2022. To apply, students must be currently enrolled in public school, except for incoming kindergartners. Applicants will be taken first come, first served.
Education savings accounts are a way to give parents more options. Many families would like to send their children to private schools or home-school them, but they simply cannot afford to—especially since they are taxed to pay for public schools regardless. A program like Arizona’s allows these parents to make the best choice for their families, whether that means a religious school, a secular private school or home schooling.
Arizona is not the first state to give its entire student body the opportunity to use an education savings account, but here the idea has already run the legal gauntlet. Two years ago when Nevada created a similar program, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit that blocked the law. The ACLU had argued that because some parents might choose religious schools, the Nevada program would wind up funding sectarian organizations in violation of the state constitution.
The Nevada Supreme Court did not buy that argument, ruling that because parents control the accounts it does not qualify as public money. But the court struck down the mechanism that lawmakers had used to fund the program. Nevada lawmakers have introduced a bill to remedy the situation, but Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and the Democratic Legislature are sharply divided.
A similar legal battle took place in Arizona. An appeals court—whose ruling was upheld by the state Supreme Court—held in 2013 that education savings accounts do not violate Arizona’s constitution. “The parents of a qualified student under the ESA,” the court ruled, “must provide an education in reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies, and science. Whether that is done at a private secular or sectarian school is a matter of parental choice.”
Arizona’s law is proving the success of school choice. Lawmakers in more than a dozen states, including Texas, Missouri and Maine, have considered similar programs in recent years. The first drafts of these bills often make education savings accounts available to all public-school students. That would give more parents than ever the option to do what’s right for their families—instead of what’s best for the education bureaucracy.
Mr. Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.
Appeared in the Apr. 15, 2017, print edition.