Policy Documents

The Education Debit Card: What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts

Lindsey M. Burke –
August 16, 2013

In this policy report, Lindsey Burke argues that as parental choice in education takes root in more communities throughout the U.S., education savings accounts (ESAs) have taken on greater importance as the funding mechanism for customized learning. This is especially true in Arizona.

The state’s version of ESAs, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, has enabled families to completely tailor their children’s educational experience. It also is a “critical refinement” of economist Milton Friedman’s original vision of school choice through vouchers. With Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, Arizona has created a model that should be every state policymaker’s goal when considering how to improve education: funding students instead of physical school buildings and allowing that funding to follow children to any education provider of choice. Such control over education funding ensures parents have access to options that meet their children’s unique learning needs and ultimately can move beyond the worthwhile goal of school choice to choice among education service providers, courses, teachers, and methods.

Arizona’s ESAs allow parents of certain students to withdraw them from their public or charter schools and have 90 percent of the funds the state would have spent on them deposited into Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Parents can use Empowerment Scholarship Account funds to pay for the following education-related expenses:

  • private school tuition and fees;
  • education therapy services and aides;
  • textbooks;
  • private online learning courses;
  • Advanced Placement (AP) exams, norm-referenced achievement tests, and college admission exams;
  • tutoring;
  • curriculum;
  • contributions to a 529 college savings plan;
  • college tuition;
  • college textbooks;
  • ESA management fees; or
  • individual public school classes and programs.

 Parents can “roll over” unused Empowerment Scholarship Account funds from year to year, saving unspent funds for future education-related expenses. Education savings accounts provide a path forward for states wishing to design robust education choice options that allow for complete customization of a child’s pre-K-12 educational experience. ESAs facilitate the transition from financing schools to funding students, empowering parents with control over their children’s share of education funding. As such, they can and should be given strong consideration by state policymakers interested in creating a truly studentcentered, choice-based education system.