Arizona law allows K-12 students to enroll in any public school in the district where they live, schools in other districts, or in charter schools.
They can also receive private or corporate tax-credit scholarships to attend private schools.
The state's newest program, "empowerment savings accounts," gives special-needs students currently in public schools funds to use on private school tuition, home-school curriculum or education services, as long as they leave their public schools.**
And, a state lawmaker is now proposing changes to the state Constitution to allow for the creation of school vouchers. A previous attempt at vouchers was knocked down by the courts because the state's Constitution prohibits the use of public dollars to pay for church or private education.
Arizona's education umbrella offers lots of choices, a point that often ranks Arizona high with education reform groups.
And while many tout the benefit of choice, others question whether more is needed, or whether education discussions are focused on the right matters.
Education laws across the country vary. Some communities and states simply mandate that students must attend their neighborhood schools. Parents have been jailed or fined for disregarding that.
"We do have a lot of options in Arizona: charter schools, online schools, the tax credit program, limited district choices if space is open," said Liz Dreckman, president and executive director of Arizona School Choice Trust, which disperses scholarships to students using several tax credit programs and private donations. "But it's still relatively true that low-income families that are in the worst public school districts don't have a lot of options if the charter schools have wait lists and the tax credit scholarships have wait lists, as well."
Dreckman said she found through informal polling that more than 10,000 students are waiting for private school scholarships at about half of the 50 school tuition organizations, or STOs, in Arizona that she questioned.
There are more than 1 million students in public schools in Arizona, with about 12 percent of them attending public charter schools and the rest at public district schools. Private schools are not required to report enrollment numbers to the state.
Tracey Benson, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, questions why, with nearly 90 percent of Arizona students in public school districts, the focus of education chatter isn't more on improving those schools.
"Of course the question is: Is competition good? Some will argue, ‘Yes, it is. You have to let the market forces decide,'" Benson said. "But when you let the market forces decide, there are winners and there are losers. We just can't afford to let any Arizona students be losers."
What choice has done, she acknowledged, is create competition for students - and dollars.
Arizona's public school funding formula currently disperses dollars based on the number of students in the classroom.
"It has created a competition for students. It has created a competition for students between school districts, within school districts, between school districts and charter schools, and now, with the private school tax credit, it's thrown private schools more into the mix," Benson said.
Jonathan Butcher, education director for the conservative Goldwater Institute that crafted the "empowerment savings accounts" lawmakers approved, believes in the power of choice.
"We need more options. If the alternative is to simply pour more money into schools that provide a one-size-fits-all program, then we certainly need more choice, more ways for parents to pick programs that work. We can't keep doing the same things the same way," Butcher said.
In fact, movement is afoot to change the way education is funded.
On Friday, Gov. Jan Brewer told Capitol Media Services she will propose major changes to the state school funding formula.
Brewer indicated her proposal to fund education is tied to parent choice and expanded options for private schools but does not include any more money.
School districts are already getting into the choice game. And yes, Benson said, some of that is because of the competition. School districts are creating niche programs that address student interests in the arts, STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math), health care fields, business and more.
Several East Valley districts have schools with dual language programs. Back-to-basics programs are popular with parents - and are growing. Nearly every district has a college preparatory program of one type or another for high schoolers.
Whether or not another program of choice is created in Arizona, through vouchers or changes to the state funding mechanism, some argue the state needs a different focus.
"If choice equated to quality, we'd have the best school system in the country. To pin the discussion on choice ... is a mistake," Benson said. "What we need to really pin the discussion on is quality and making sure as many children as possible, hopefully all Arizona children, have access to a high quality education."
**Clarification (Jan. 9, 2011, 3:03 p.m.): The original version of this incorrectly identified potential recipients when discussing the state's "empowerment savings accounts." The funds are available only to qualified special needs students who currently attend an Arizona public school -- district or charter.
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