Arizona hearing opens hood of nation’s first universal school choice program

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State lawmakers hear from economist Alan Maguire on the state's Empowerment Scholarship Account Program on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. By Cameron Arcand | The Center Square

Questions regarding the universal Empowerment Scholarship Account program were front and center at an Arizona House of Representatives hearing on Wednesday.

“This is not a forum to advocate for or against the ESA program itself,” Speaker Ben Toma emphasized at the start.

The hearing from the House Ad Hoc Study Committee on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Governance and Oversight featured a presentation from economist Alan Maguire analyzing demographics and trends related to the program, specifically addressing budget concerns.

“This is a complicated program… I think the people running it are doing a good job,” Maguire said, saying “start-up” programs like ESA are tough to manage at first.

Lawmakers asked Maguire several questions regarding the data and other kinds of data they would like to see. For example, Rep. Marcelino Quiñones, D-Phoenix, asked about what the data out there is on who uses ESA and then may return to a public school, but Maguire said it would likely be difficult to determine.

Although Maguire was not able to answer all the data questions from lawmakers, he did say that some data will become clearer or available as the winter approaches and families get more settled in schools, along with the program being around for longer at that point. The universal ESA program was signed into law by former Gov. Doug Ducey in 2022, making it a fairly new development in Arizona’s education policy.

During public comment, proponents and opponents of the ESA program commented.

“Fifty-five percent of our families qualify for free or reduced lunch,” Phoenix Christian Preparatory School Superintendent Jeff Blake said when asked by Toma regarding the income data of parents at the school, where Ducey held an event celebrating the program last August.

On the opposing side, longtime public school teacher and Save Our Schools Arizona’s West Valley and North Phoenix coordinator Alicia Lucas raised concerns about class sizes and funding over time.

“This added pull from the funding that can go to our public schools is not going to solve our problems,” Lucas said. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for us who are in teaching.”

Toma said that he’s looking forward to more details from Maguire.

“I mean, this is all pretty preliminary for Mr. Maguire, so he’s gonna have to finish his analysis and get us some more specific details on his findings if you will. So that’ll be part of it. I kind of alluded to it in my comments that I think the Department of Education will be presenting the next time we meet,” Toma said. “And the idea there is for people to understand part of the process. I mean, comments were made today, for example, that we don’t know where these funds are going. We don’t know who’s doing, but yes, we do, actually. We know exactly where they’re going, and we know exactly who’s using them.”

Republished with the permission of The Center Square.