How Arizona became America’s school choice lab

Kathy Visser of Arizona, a former public school teacher, has embraced her state’s education savings account legislation as a perfect fit for her son Jordan. Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account makes it possible for Jordan to attend The H.E.A.R.T. Center, a microschool that offers individualized pathways for students based on their needs.

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For a long time, Kathy Visser struggled to find the right school for her son Jordan.

There had always been options in Arizona’s public school system. The state has long had a policy of open enrollment, allowing any family to apply to any of the state’s public schools, and it still has a nation-leading percentage of students attending charter schools.

She remembers vividly the public school teachers who worked tirelessly to teach Jordan when he was younger, marveling at the talent and commitment they displayed. But when the family had to move, or when his teachers moved on, her experience navigating the system and finding the right fit for a son who’s struggled with developmental and emotional challenges felt like being in a frustrating bureaucratic maze, she says.

“Sometimes they fight the parents, and when they’re fighting the parents, the freedom to find an appropriate education for your child is a luxury only for the rich,” Ms. Visser says.

On a desert-hot day in August, however, she’s standing with Jordan in a modest stable of horses at the private school where she was able to send her son, using funds from an education savings account that Arizona calls “empowerment scholarships.” The school, The H.E.A.R.T. Center in Glendale, is a 16-student “microschool” that combines equine therapy and personalized instruction, and her son, now 18, has flourished here, both of them say.

“Arizona is a lot more free when it comes to parent-directed education,” says Ms. Visser, who taught public school herself in the mid-1990s, when she lived in Colorado and worked with lower-income students in some of the state’s outlying rural districts.

Her experiences have made her a vocal advocate for a nationwide movement its supporters now hail as “education freedom,” a relatively new label in conservative education circles for a movement of controversial ideas and education policies that have mostly been known as “school choice.”

Ms. Visser was among the first to participate in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program nearly a decade ago, when it was limited to families with kids with certain challenges or those enrolled in public schools the state deemed failing.

But in July, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a major, universal expansion of this scholarship program, which he and supporters around the country are calling “the gold standard for educational freedom.”

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BY Special to NextSteps