School choice advocates are spinning last week’s election results in the most positive light possible.
“School choice victorious in the 2018 elections,” read the headline on a press release issued by the American Federation for Children.
That’s a bit of a stretch. While voters elected pro–school choice candidates in many states, they dealt a significant blow to the choice movement’s flagship initiative—the education savings account (ESA).
Choice advocates had hoped Arizona would become the first state in the nation with an ESA program open to all students. The state established what it calls its Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011 for special needs students and those in low-performing public schools. The accounts allow families to use a portion of their public school funding allotment for alternative education expenses, including private school tuition and homeschool curriculum. Last year, the Arizona legislature voted to expand the program to all students, capping enrollment at 30,000. Opponents collected enough signatures to place a repeal measure on last week’s ballot, and 65 percent of Arizona voters opted to roll back the expansion.
“Despite Tuesday’s vote, education savings accounts are alive and well in Arizona—and have plenty of room to grow,” wrote Jonathan Butcher, an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, insisting choice supporters didn’t lose.
American Federation for Children President John Schilling said the expansion’s defeat “will still result in more Arizona families having the opportunity to access an ESA.”
Schilling and Butcher both focus on the numbers involved. Right now, the state can only increase ESA program enrollment by about 5,000 new students each year. But that cap will expire in 2019, opening the program to all eligible applicants—nearly 1 in 5 Arizona students. Butcher noted about 130,000 students in the state have special needs and could benefit from the educational flexibility offered by ESAs.
Robert Enlow, president of EdChoice, also focused on the opportunity created by last week’s defeat.
“We are disappointed that the ‘no’ vote will prevent thousands of new families from using the ESA program, but we take the result as a much-needed shot in the arm to educate Arizonans about—and build a broader coalition committed to—educational choice,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Arizona Republic.
Surveys show parents support school choice in theory, but ESAs have faced an uphill battle across the country. Nevada legislators approved a universal ESA program in 2015, and the state successfully fought off a legal challenge filed by public school supporters who said it violated the state constitution. But political realities stymied efforts to fund the program when Democrats took control of the state legislature in 2016. Last week, Democrats swept the state government, assuring the ESA program will remain dormant for the time being.
Other efforts to enact ESA programs have failed, even in reliably conservative states like Texas. So where’s the disconnect?
Rick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute thinks school choice as a policy initiative has fallen out of favor, becoming “vaguely Washington-ish in a way that it wasn’t before.” He predicts even politicians who support school choice will gravitate toward education-related issues that play well with a broad swath of middle-class voters: career and technical education, workforce readiness, college affordability and access, and early childhood education.
“Both sides like those issues,” he said, noting the potential for bipartisan efforts.
But school choice supporters aren’t giving up. Robert Enlow points to surveys that consistently show parents want more control over their children’s education.
“That tells us that educational choice isn’t going anywhere,” he wrote. “The more people experience that choice, the more they want it. But a greater opportunity is just over the horizon—the ability to develop a new school choice system for Arizona that benefits everyone.”