May 31, 2019
By Matt Beienburg

With Arizona’s latest legislative session now in the books, the state’s K-12 system is again poised to receive major funding increases this fall. From an extra $165 million to continue phasing in the “20×2020” teacher pay raise plan, to a new $68 million of accelerated “additional assistance” funding restorations (on top of another $168 million that was already set to be restored), to an additional $30 million for results based funding and $20 million for school resource officers and counselors…there is quite a list.

Of course, as research from even left-leaning think tanks has made clear, additional dollars are no cure-all in education, and in fact, it is often lower-cost alternative pathways in which students have thrived most. So it’s encouraging that in addition to big-ticket public school funding increases, the Arizona Legislature also approved two bills that will bring relief to families participating in a different avenue of Arizona’s K-12 landscape: the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. 

These families—who receive a portion of what would have been spent on their children in a public school setting to purchase instructional services and materials for their kids—have often found themselves on the wrong end of demand letters from the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) months after submitting receipts for purchases they had made in good faith.

Notably, for example, several families from the Navajo reservation recently received threats of expulsion from the ESA program and demands to repay money they’d used to send their students to a private school, because it happened to fall about a quarter mile outside the Arizona state line in New Mexico. (While ESA statute requires that tuition payments go to schools located within Arizona, ADE had approved similar payments in the past, leaving the parents to rather reasonably conclude they were following the rules.)

Thanks to efforts from tribal leaders, state legislators, and organizations like the American Federation for Children, however, these families will receive at least temporary reprieve. Under the newly passed HB 2758, these families will have their ESA status restored, will be held harmless from the financial nightmare they were originally presented with, and will be able to continue attending their school for the next academic year. 

It is unfortunate, however, that certain lawmakers and those who are against the ESA program so oppose anything they consider “expansion” that they demanded these children not be allowed to continue in their same school in years after. And it’s perhaps even more disappointing that many of these same lawmakers seemingly found other ESA families throughout Arizona undeserving of similar protections when they receive surprise bills for purchases they had likewise been led to believe were allowable.

There is some good news for all of these remaining families as well, however. HB 2749 establishes a new requirement that ADE contract with a financial management firm to help administer the ESA program. Bringing in a provider with expertise in processing transactions offers parents hope for a streamlined system in which their ESA purchases will be more easily and rapidly verified and approved, hopefully eliminating troubling situations for families before they arise.   

Clearly, ESA families need and deserve additional relief from the headaches and uncertainties that many have dealt with when navigating the program’s rules. Yet even as much remains to be done, it is worth celebrating not only the continued strength of Arizona’s ESA program and the families who make it up, but also the increasing access to ESA programs throughout the country. 

For example, families who support school choice should be gladdened to see progress made recently in Tennessee, where Governor Bill Lee signed an ESA expansion for low-income students in struggling Memphis and Nashville-area schools. While limited in many ways—such as permitting more narrow uses of funds than other states’ ESA programs—this legislation will help increase families’ access to educational options and provide their students new opportunities to learn in an environment right for them.

Likewise, after teachers’ unions and other activists organized a strike against school choice measures in West Virginia earlier this year, the state’s Senate unveiled a renewed effort this week to provide special needs students access to education savings accounts in their state. 

With presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders seeking to choke off school choice opportunities across the country, there’s no doubt that opponents of ESAs, charter schools, and other educational alternatives aim to turn back the clock. But thanks to the families and lawmakers championing for freedom in education around the U.S., we’re still moving forward.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

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