"They are so excited about learning now," Lynn says. "We're stepping up academically for these kids, it's a huge challenge."
There's also at least some evidence that this approach is working. Nearly 35 percent of families are using the accounts to cover the cost of multiple options, including personal tutors and online programs, according to a 2013 study released by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. And a second Friedman study released last year surveyed parents using the accounts and found that all respondents reported some level of satisfaction with the accounts, even those who described themselves as "very satisfied" with their child's previous public school.
Earlier this year, the Arizona Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge from the state teachers' union and school boards association about the constitutionality of the accounts, ending a three-year lawsuit that threatened families' access to the program. The union and association claimed that education savings accounts are school vouchers, and violated Arizona's Blaine Amendment, language restricting the use of public funds for parochial and private schools. Similar language can also be found in the constitutions and laws of 40 other states.
Arizona courts have ruled that this interpretation of education savings accounts is inaccurate. With a school voucher, parents can make only one choice — a new private school for their child. Educational savings accounts offer parents a range of options.
This flexibility was not lost on Arizona's courts. Arizona Appeals Court Judge Jon Thompson, who wrote the opinion that now stands on the accounts, held, "Where [education savings account] funds are spent depends solely upon how parents choose to educate their children."
Before the Arizona high court's decision, the Blaine Amendment and similar rules in other states dampened voucher programs across the country. Educational savings accounts, an innovation in the school-choice fight, have begun to change things for some of the nation's most at-risk students.
The accounts have found a sweet spot in the catalog of interventions for low-income and underserved families. In 2013-14, the first school year that students from failing schools were eligible to apply for an Arizona educational savings account, 14 percent of student participants came from schools that earned a D or an F on the state report card.
Education savings accounts provide families with access to new — and varied — educational options. They also give parents an incentive to choose wisely. Parents can save unused funds from year to year for future educational expenses and even pay for college. So, families have good reason to find the most effective services for their child, both in terms of cost and how well their child learns.
That's why lawmakers in Mississippi, Oregon, Montana, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Missouri, to name a few states, have begun to consider education savings accounts. After an education savings account measure passed the Florida Legislature three weeks ago, parents and their children are just one signature (the governor's) away from exercising this option in the Sunshine State. Given all that activity, it's not hard to see why teachers' unions and some school districts regard educational savings accounts as a frightening reform that is here to stay.