February 12, 2021
By Martha Astor
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program has been an educational lifesaver for many kids and their families. But when the Arizona Department of Education began improperly withholding funds from those in need, these families were left wondering whether their kids would be able to get the education they deserve. The Goldwater Institute took action on behalf of those families, the Department has changed course and ended its obstructionism.
ESAs were developed by the Goldwater Institute to give parents the flexibility they need to develop and deliver the education best suited to enable their children to grow into successful and productive adults. Under the program, which today helps nearly 10,000 Arizona families, a portion of the funding that would have been spent on a child in public school is put into a private account to support teaching tools, tutoring, tuition, and other education-related expenses. Unfortunately, the same people who are entrusted to implement that program, and to help ensure that children receive those educational opportunities, have too often stood in the way of parents who want to provide learning tools for their children.
A recent report by Arizona’s Auditor General found that the state’s Department of Education was failing to provide ESA participants with basic information needed to work with the program, and last year, the Institute was forced to go to court when Arizona Department of Education bureaucrats refused to pay ESA parents the funds to which they were entitled. Time and again, the Department refused to cover legitimate expenses, or arbitrarily denied expenditures for one parent that were approved for another—and when parents sought clarification, the Department refused to help. Fortunately, that lawsuit ended well when the state legislature passed a new law requiring the Department to clean up its rules to be more transparent and to give parents a chance to appeal arbitrary decisions about what parents can and can’t spend ESA funds on.
Yet the Department’s obstructionism had not yet ended for parent Kayla Svedin. When she bought a language learning program for her child, she researched her options and chose a program well known for delivering excellent results. She double-checked to make sure that it was a pre-approved curriculum under the Department’s rules, and when it was, she purchased it for her daughter. She filed out the required forms and provided receipts to the Department…only to have an ESA coordinator freeze her ESA account on the grounds that she had purchased an unapproved item.
The reason? The manufacturer of the software program threw in, as a free extra, a lifetime subscription to a database of teaching tools—and the Department’s ESA Handbook prohibits parents from buying “subscriptions” that last longer than a year. That prohibition is bizarre enough on its own—a parent can buy a physical textbook, for instance, even though it lasts longer than a year. But on top of that, Kayla had not even set out to buy the subscription; it was an added gratuity from the software company. Yet, once again, when Kayla sought clarification from the Department, she was given the bureaucratic runaround. It insisted that she either had to pay back the cost of a curriculum that should have been approved in the first place, or risk having her daughter go months without a teacher and the educational tools that were helping her gain success as a student.
Fortunately, the new law passed last year provides parents with the right to appeal the Department’s ESA decisions to the state Board of Education—and requires the Department to continue funding a child’s education while that appeal goes through. Represented by the Goldwater Institute, Kayla filed an appeal—and in response, the Department changed its ruling and covered the expenditure.
We’re glad the Department changed its mind. The point of the ESA program is to maximize parents’ freedom of choice in obtaining the educational options their children need. Yet this case is just one example of the Department’s continued recalcitrance in administering the ESA program in a way that both properly conforms to statute and meets the needs of parents.
Recent months have proven more than ever that parents need flexibility and free choice when it comes to educating their kids—not bureaucratic delays and evasions. The Goldwater Institute will keep working to ensure the Department of Education cooperates with parents in seeking what’s best for kids, instead of dragging its heels as it did with Kayla.
Martha Astor is a Staff Attorney at the Goldwater Institute.