July 16, 2020
By Matt Beienburg
“In all the years I’ve been using ESAs and navigating my children’s education, I’ve never felt as heard as I have recently, so truly, thank you for trying to do what’s best for our children.”
– Arizona ESA mom to members of the Arizona State Board of Education
This week, the Arizona State Board of Education hosted a public hearing on the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. (You can read my testimony at the hearing here.) Known more generally as “education savings accounts,” the ESA program has given more than 7,000 Arizona students and their families a lifeline to educational opportunity outside the traditional public school system by depositing funds into flexible savings accounts families can use to provide personalized instruction and special needs therapies for their kids.
Now, after years of politically motivated attacks on them and their families, a massive breach of their privacy this spring, and administrative failures by state agency employees, ESA families are standing up on behalf of their kids.
In what would have been a line out the door in more normal times, dozens of parents piped in to the board’s virtual hearing to share their stories and suggestions for strengthening and improving the program. (This on top of more than a thousand ESA families responding to the board’s outreach to stay connected to the new rulemaking process being undertaken by the board.)
As parents shared their frustrations with how the program has been administered by the Arizona Department of Education in the past—and the need to preserve flexibility in how they are able to make purchases for their kids in the future—one message was especially clear: the impact and importance of this program to their families. As parent after parent testified, the education savings account program is saving far more than money—it is saving kids.
As the mother of one special needs child shared, “ESA saved my son from a path that would have compromised him on a systemic level, ultimately hindering his ability to pursue secondary education, sustainable employment, and independent living.”
From another mom: “I am a parent of three children on ESA, but I also have a master’s degree in elementary education, and ESA has saved the educational lives of my three children…. We have tried public, private, and charter schools… [and] my child was able to meet some of her IEP goals in four months that no school had helped her to achieve in four years.”
And from a mother in rural Arizona: “I want all to know that this ESA option to educate my children truly saved my family; my oldest has significant disabilities and she attended our public school through her ninth grade year… So many years were spent advocating and begging and pleading for her to be educated, and more importantly, even wanted… ESA has opened up our world to educational opportunities never to be found in the public school setting…”
These are mere snapshots of the three hours of testimony from ESA parents at the hearing. But they represent the growing voice of families who have found hope and opportunity for their kids and are unafraid to speak out on their behalf.
The staff and members of the State Board deserve kudos for creating the space for parents to share their suggestions and concerns for how best to strengthen, streamline, and improve the ESA program. It’s time now for the public at large to start listening to these same families and their incredible stories with the ESA program. Fortunately, there are some great places to start.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.