May 6, 2019
By Timothy Sandefur
We asked the Arizona Department of Education today to withdraw letters that it sent to several Navajo Nation families accusing them of misspending their Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) funds by sending their children to a Christian school located on the reservation. That school, Hilltop Christian School, is located in Tse Bonito, New Mexico, approximately 3,100 feet past the Arizona border. Because it’s on the Arizona side, the Department declared that families were not allowed to use their ESA funds for its annual fees—and ordered the families to write checks to the Department totaling thousands of dollars.
The Department’s argument is that ESA funds can only be used for tuition at “qualified schools,” which the law defines as schools located in Arizona. But the ESA law also allows parents to pay for “teaching services” from authorized individuals or facilities regardless of where they’re located. Hilltop’s teachers are all qualified and certified by an accreditation agency, as the law requires. Our letter therefore asks the Department to rescind its demands and allow these parents to continue paying for “teaching services” as they’ve done for two years already.
Hilltop—which charges between $2,000 and $2,600 per year—has operated since 1964, and it serves students from preschool through the sixth grade. “Parents have been using their ESA funds to send kids to Hilltop for years, and the Department’s never had a problem with it before,” said Hilltop’s principal, Bill Naas. “We take seriously our duty to help kids and families, and it’s important that parents have this option. We’re praying that the Department changes its mind.”
Just four years ago, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed legislation expanding the ESA program to include Native American parents. “School choice,” he said, while signing the bill in Window Rock, “is critical for not only the kids but their parents.” The ESA program exists to “provide excellent alternatives for these kids to go to a place where they will actually learn and that is what we are seeing here on Navajo.” Unfortunately, state education officials are threatening to deprive these Navajo parents of their freedom of choice—and these children of their opportunities—though a misreading of state law.
We’ve asked the Department to answer our letter by the end of this week.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.