School Choice's Continued Impact on Education in Arizona

by Alanna Ostby

For years Arizona has led the US as a pioneer in school choice.  It has entrusted families to navigate education as they see fit, providing options like open enrollment, online instruction, charter schools, homeschooling, private school tax credits, education savings accounts, and improved public schooling.  In fact, Arizona ties with Florida at the top of the nation in school choice, each with scores of 95% from the Center for Education Reform.  This reflects various policies and programs that maximize educational opportunity within their respective states.  Although over half of the US has enacted some form of school choice law, heavy regulations and funding disparities hit even “B-rated” states like Georgia and Nevada.  These only worsen down the list as only 5 states (Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, and Georgia) maintain above a “C” in school choice.  In fact, 20 states fail to offer a single related program, whether savings accounts, vouchers, scholarships, or tax deductions.  Red and blue territories alike have neglected academic alternatives, but Arizona has paved the way for reform.


Clearly, Arizonians care about education.  The latest Data Orbital statewide survey of likely general election voters confirms that, with 27.72% prioritizing it first above other hot topics like gun rights, immigration, abortion, and more.  Overall, K-12 education landed either first or second among every age group, with especially high percentages among younger voters.  For instance, those ages 18 to 34 and 35 to 44 selected it as their top issue 40.6% and 39.87% of the time, respectively.  These figures practically doubled those of the runner-up (jobs and the economy) at 20.5% and 22.97%.  Among voters ages 45 to 54 and 55 to 64, education finished in a close second only to jobs and the economy.  However, it ranked first among those 65 and older at 24.45%, with border security next at 23.87%.  In general, females stressed K-12 education the most (with 32.41% calling it their highest priority) compared to a still noteworthy 22.46% of males.  With growing urgency among voters across the spectrum, Arizona schools and politicians have responded.

Some of Arizona’s first strides in school choice followed the 1994 Arizona Charter School Law that offered interested schools more autonomy (regarding mission, curriculum, personnel, finance, etc.) in exchange for performance and public funding accountability.  The onset of new, diverse charter schools continues to gain interest, with 185,900 students attending 556 of them statewide from 2016-2017.  This amounts to 16% of all Arizona students, an increase of 5.9% (over 10,000) from the previous year and almost double the total a decade ago.  It also triples the current national average of 5% charter school students.  Furthermore, Arizona law requires state-regulated district schools to admit children from any area given available classroom space.  In fact, about 31% of K-8 students in Maricopa County (serving 737,073 students – by far the most of any county in Arizona) took advantage of open enrollment in 2016.  This includes all those attending public schools outside of their designated attendance zones (based on home address).  Overall, 47% of Maricopa County public school students utilize charter schools and open enrollment.  These opportunities have helped parents of all financial status and location find the best learning environments for their children.

Other outlets of school choice, though not always free, have become more accessible.  Arizona’s legislature first conceived the Original Income Tax Credit in 1997, reimbursing individuals up to $546 for donations to nonprofit school scholarship programs.  This aids 31,578 students today (out of 665,587 eligible), in addition to three more tax credits with thousands of other beneficiaries.  In 2011, Arizona also instated Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) to grant families state funds for public education alternatives.  5,091 students with special needs (out of 259,223 eligible) have acquired ESAs today, with an average value of $11,614 each.  With rising student success and parent satisfaction, school choice advocates hope to extend eligibility to all Arizona students through Prop 305 on the ballot this November.  In general, approximately 95% of private schools partake in one or more of these programs, supporting the 4% of Arizona students (45,000) who attended them in 2014.  In addition, some have applied their scholarships to virtual education, with over 40 approved online schools in Arizona, or homeschooling, with 35,179 students in 2017.  These new measures have accommodated a plethora of unique students, but reform continues even at the roots of K-12 education.


Through all of these changes, district schools have remained a top concern for Arizonians.  In 2016, voters approved Prop 123 with intent to grant them $3.5 billion over the next 10 years.  Furthermore, it afforded $50 million for the general maintenance of public schools in each of the first 5 years, escalating afterwards to $75 million.  Governor Ducey and the legislature also pushed through an extension to Prop 301 to secure $667 million for Arizona public schools in each of the next 20 years.  This allots $364 million for the K-12 Classroom Site Fund, $86.3 million for five additional school days each year, $64.1 million for school buildings, $16.5 million for Arizona Department of Education Programs, and much more.  Even more recently, Governor Ducey announced a 20% net salary increase for teachers by 2020 that will boost their average annual pay to $58,950.  This builds on a 5-year plan to reinstitute $371 million of recession-era cuts to district and charter infrastructure, curriculum, transportation, and technology.  Public education, though not yet perfect, has moved considerably in the right direction.  With increasing growth and competition across the board, Arizonians can look forward to even more school choice progress in the years to come.


Alanna Ostby is a Client Success Manager at Data Orbital.  She is an avid writer and keenly interested in the intersection of data, politics and public policy.