Has School Choice Been All It Set Out to Be?

Kasey Locke has been diagnosed with autism. When her parents enrolled her in the public school in her town in Arizona, she had a hard time communicating, let alone learning. The Lockes, however, took advantage of an education savings account (ESA) program to sign their daughter up at a private school. ESAs work like vouchers, with one difference: The funds can be used not just for tuition but for other expenses, such as tutoring. For Kasey, the new school and continuing educational therapy did the trick. “With the ESA, the parents were able to put her in a private school that specializes in autism,” says Debbie Lesko, the majority whip in the Arizona Senate. “The child is not only learning, but thriving.”

Lesko thinks a program that has worked so well for a family like the Lockes should be available to any Arizona resident who wants to use it. Five years ago, she sponsored legislation that made Arizona the first state to offer ESAs, which it calls empowerment scholarship accounts. Since then, Arizona has repeatedly expanded the pool of eligible residents to include groups such as foster children, Native Americans and the children of military veterans.

No state has embraced school choice ideas with the fervor of Arizona. It has the nation’s highest percentage of students enrolled in charter schools — 14 percent, which is roughly three times the national average. The state Department of Education itself runs an office of school choice.

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