Arizona poised to become the first state with universal private K-12 choice

Word began to leak yesterday that the Save Our Schools group had misrepresented the number of signatures gathered in an effort to thwart Arizona’s universal ESA expansion. It now appears all but certain/official that they did not gather the needed 118,000 petition signatures required to freeze the expansion and hold a vote on the measure. So, what happens next?

Contra the fears of opponents, the Arizona sky will not rain frogs. Arizona already has universal access to district schools, universal access to charter schools and universal access to a limited pool of tax credit funds. The current size of the program looks to approximately double, based upon the number of applications received, but up to about 2% of the K-12 total. Where it goes from there will depend upon supply and demand. The profound change will be that the program is available to the family of any student who feels in need of it.

James Glassman’s excellent profile of Governor Doug Ducey rightly begins this tale in the early 1990s. Gov. Fyfe Symington and fellow pioneers such as Lisa Graham Keegan, Tom Patterson and Armando Ruiz passed the initial charter school and district open enrollment in 1994. Patterson recalls a legislative debate in which he called for district open enrollment, and his opponent claimed it was “the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”



Decades later, we learned that a majority of Phoenix area K-8 students don’t attend their zoned district school. Stanford data (shown above) shows Arizona led the nation in the rate at which students learned between 2008 and 2018, leaving behind northeastern states that spend much more per pupil. Patterson was crazy all right, crazy like a fox.

Over the past three decades, Arizona’s choice policies have allowed an amazing group of educators the opportunity to flourish. An amazing diversity of schools bloomed in the desert, and a huge amount of expertise developed. Families have decided which schools to reseed and which to pull like weeds. The survivors of this process are the most effective group of educators in the nation judging by academic growth, and before the pandemic they lacked a close second. They have a new tool now. This isn’t like Russia conscripting unwilling blokes from the pub, more like NATO giving advanced weaponry to Ukrainian special forces.

Arizona pioneers deserve our praise and thanks, but so to does this generation of leaders. Ducey is ending his eight years as governor having expanded freedom, slashed red tape and strengthened the state’s economy. Well done and many thanks! Legislative leaders such as state Rep. Ben Toma were absolutely fearless in pursuit of education freedom, as was outgoing state Senate Education Committee Chairman Paul Boyer. The advocacy efforts of the American Federation for Children, the Goldwater Institute, and the Center for Arizona Policy achieved this feat faster than I believed possible. I have never been so happy to eat a plate of crow!

Many trials lie ahead. Arizona’s undaunted commitment to freedom and self-determination in schooling has already been richly rewarded. I feel confident we will surmount every difficulty. “’Tis the business of little minds to shrink,” Leonardo da Vinci wrote “but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death.”

Firm your hearts, Americans. The families in your states need this as well.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.

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