March 23, 2020
By Matt Beienburg

Last week Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed SB 1224 and delivered a victory for parents, students, and educational freedom. Sponsored by state Senator Sylvia Allen, the bill gives families of the Navajo nation the unequivocal right to continue their children’s education at the school of their choice through the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. Specifically, it ensures that any child participating in the program and living on a Native American reservation can attend a nearby qualified private school anywhere within 2 miles of the state border.

Fortunately, SB 1224 brings much needed relief not only to those families on reservation lands, but to the families of all 7,000+ ESA participants.  Among its provisions, SB 1224 enacts a series of other reforms:

Educational Flexibility

  • Allowing parents to purchase supplemental curriculum materials for their children.
  • Clarifying that families of special needs students will not be blocked from purchasing technological devices associated with their children’s learning.

Administrative Reform

  • Establishing a process for parents to appeal to the State Board of Education (SBE) decisions made by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE).
  • Protecting parents from demands of collection and repayment unless those cases are first authorized by SBE. (In other words, never again should we have a repeat of ADE’s decision last year to send threatening letters out of the blue to Navajo families stating that they owed tuition payments back for schooling that ADE itself had previously approved.)
  • Requiring that ESA program rules be developed by the State Board of Education, rather than arbitrarily, inconsistently, and/or without public input by ADE.
  • Ensuring that the Attorney General provides written guidance on helping to prevent participants’ data from ever again being inappropriately divulged.

Streamlined, Targeted Funding

  • Appropriating a new $1.1 million next year to provide a dedicated ESA call center, ESA case workers, program training and community outreach, and other administrative support.
  • Increasing the General Fund savings generated by the ESA program by eliminating the formulaic 5% deposit of funds into administrative set-aside accounts.

Despite the significant number of reforms, SB 1224 is by no means perfect.  As part of the process of legislative compromise, the bill does remove deposits into Coverdell savings accounts from the list of allowed program expenditures and implements language to lapse certain account balances after three years of inactivity. However, the positive reforms in SB 1224 should bring needed relief to ESA families throughout Arizona, and that is very much worth celebrating.

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

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