Empowerment Scholarship Accounts: Arizona Creates Meaningful Change

By R. Claire Friend / September 4, 2014 / California Policy Center

The system of government-controlled public education has failed in its mandated task to prepare America’s youth for adulthood. High school graduates are grossly undereducated and unprepared for work, career and responsible citizenship. The failure is recorded in their poor scores on international assessments of academic competence.

Numerous studies have demonstrated the continuing decline in high school graduation rates and scores on SAT tests and armed forces entrance exams as well as the increasing demand for remedial classes in college.

After 12 years of education, students today lack basic numeracy and literacy skills. According to detailed analysis in a report by Lindsey Burke for the Friedman Foundation [1], only 40% of 4th graders test at grade level in math, a number that drops to 35% in the 8th grade. Just 34% of 4th and 8th graders test at grade-level proficiency in reading, a rate that declines to 17% for low-income students. These are appalling numbers.

Desperate to improve outcomes and give children a better chance for success, parents, educators and concerned citizens were forced to develop alternative models. These alternatives include vouchers, charter schools, home schools, tax-credit scholarships and Education Savings Accounts. Each of the programs has a proven record of success. This article will describe Arizona’s highly innovative school choice program called the Empowerment Scholarship Account.

Developed by the Goldwater Institute, ESA was enacted into law by the state legislature in 2011. The program was initially limited to special needs students. It has since been expanded to include adoptees from the foster care system, students from military families, students enrolled in underperforming schools and children entering kindergarten who meet any of the qualifications.

The number of students in the program has grown from 115 in 2011 to 1311. Several thousand students are projected for 2015. The results in academic improvement, parental satisfaction and reduced costs have all been positive. The program has been well received locally and nationally. Several states have already introduced legislation for similar ESA programs.

The mechanics of the program are straightforward. 90% of the student’s allotted educational funds are deposited into an ESA account. His parent receives a debit card for the funds which can then be used to purchase a variety of education-related programs.

The options include private or parochial school tuition, textbooks, tutors, homeschool curriculum, public school and virtual online classes, education therapy, AP or college admission exams and college tuition.

Unused funds may be rolled over from year to year for future education or deposited into a 529 account for college expenses. Four years after graduation from high school, any unused ESA funds are returned to the state of Arizona.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program is unique. It funds the student rather than the school. The funds follow the student throughout his education. This enables the parents to access a range of services and customize an educational program tailored to the child’s unique needs. The benefits in improved academic and lowered costs are already evident to students, parents and taxpayers.

Ordinary ESA programs function like vouchers. They limit the use of the funds to private school tuition. In response to Arizona’s success, several states have proposed similar programs. Iowa, Oregon, Mississippi and Utah have already introduced bills for ESA programs based on the Arizona model.

Legislators in Montana expanded their proposed ESA program to include all students. Lawmakers in Florida want to expand their Tax-Credit Scholarship program to include the additional options available to Arizona parents.

It has been suggested that a revolution may be necessary to loosen the stranglehold that government and its union allies have on public education. It is a battle the American public must eventually fight in order to insure the survival of a free and informed Republic.

Universal choice represents a way to rid the country of a national scourge. We can only hope the Goldwater Empowerment Scholarship Account becomes one of the engines that drive that effort.

About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.


1. http://www.edchoice.org/CMSModules/EdChoice/FileLibrary/1015/THE-EDUCATION-DEBIT-CARD-What-Arizona-Parents-Purchase-with-Education-Savings-Accounts.pdf

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