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Arizona’s ‘universal’ education savings account program has become a handout to the wealthy
Brookings
2024.05.20
Many of today’s programs take the form of education savings accounts (ESAs). Through an ESA program, families receive deposits of government funds in a restricted-use savings account, which they can spend on private school tuition, fees, and other qualifying expenses. ESA programs, though similar in many ways to voucher programs, are relatively new on the scene and haven’t been widely evaluated. Advocates argue that ESAs allow parents to customize their children’s education and create opportunities for families who otherwise might be unable to afford private schooling or other educational expenses. Critics contend that ESA programs lack protections for students and taxpayers. They also contend that ESAs have little track record of success and siphon off funds that would be better spent on public schools. While ESA programs remain young and confined to certain states, they are beginning to account for a sizable share of school funding in some places.

Here, we’ll examine who is getting public funds through Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, the oldest universal ESA program in the United States. We focus on whether the primary beneficiaries of these programs are families in need―a key question for judging whether universal ESA programs really are addressing inequities in school access.