Today marks a major victory for parents and students in the Grand Canyon State. As part of a broader education package promoting public and private school choice, Arizona has passed new legislation strengthening the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program and supporting students’ access to it. Among the major provisions championed by Senator Paul Boyer, the Goldwater Institute, and its partners, the new legislation:
- Allows low-income students attending failing public schools to apply for the ESA program immediately. Rather than being forced to languish in a public school program that fails to serve their needs for months—or even an entire extra year—as under prior law, these students will be able to join the program as soon as they need. Especially after public school closures left some 50,000 Arizona pupils “missing” over the past year, this new reform will help ensure that many of Arizona’s most disadvantaged students are not left to fall even further behind.
- Slashes the waiting period for all other families who qualify for an ESA from 100 days over 2 years to just 45 days of a single year. Under prior law, ESA-eligible families had to spend 100 days at a public school—even if the school was clearly not meeting the students’ needs—then wait until the following year before the children was allowed to actually join the ESA program. Now, ESA eligible families will be able to apply for and join the program in the same year after just 45 days.
- Puts a stop to the administrative abuse and the double charging of ESA parents by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). For years, ADE has provided poor quality, misleading, or outright inaccurate information to parents, while then turning around and enacting punitive measures against those same families who have struggled to navigate the program’s rules. Specifically, in cases where a parent has made a good faith purchase with their ESA account that ADE subsequently determined was ineligible, ADE has forced them to pay that amount back while refusing to credit the repayment to their ESA account. The result has been parents paying twice for an item: once out of their ESA account, and again out of pocket. Under the new bill, unless fraud was involved, any repaid funds will be credited back to the parent’s ESA account, meaning they will pay for each item only once.
- Ends ADE’s “Guilty until Proven Innocent” treatment of ESA Families. The State Board of Education has been empowered to review parent appeals of the arbitrary administrative decisions often made by ADE. Yet even when the Board has signaled they believe a parent will ultimately win an appeal and issued a temporary “stay” preventing ADE from suspending the account, parents have found their ESA funding and contract renewals frozen by the department. Under the new legislation, ADE will no longer have the authority to prematurely punish parents that even the State Board of Education believes are likely to be vindicated.
- Ensures that ESA eligible kindergarten students are never locked out of the program simply because they are learning online. Public school closures forced students across all grades into remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, including kindergarteners who were left in limbo if they wished to apply for an ESA. Under the new legislation, eligible kindergarteners will be able to count time they spent in a public school (in person or online) when applying for an ESA.
- Gives ESA families the flexibility to use ESA funds to supplement their insurance coverage for special needs therapies. The new law allows families to use ESA funds to pay the out-of-pocket costs (that remain after insurance is applied) for eligible educational therapies. Despite having no statutory mandate to do so, ADE has prevented ESA families from using their personal health insurance in conjunction with ESA funds when paying for educational therapy appointments. Under prior ADE practice, for example, a family seeking services from a speech therapist, might be forced to choose between a) applying their health insurance to bring the out-of-pocket cost per appointment to $60, OR b) using their ESA to pay the full $100 per appointment. Now, ESA families will be able to use their personal health insurance to bring down the cost of their therapies while paying the balance with ESA.
- Ensures that ESA families have the full amount of time to use their ESA funds in K-12 or for college education. Prior law gave ESA families the right to spend unused ESA funds on postsecondary expenses, but families lacked assurance that the department would not prematurely sweep those funds from them. Under the new law, any family who continues to use their ESA funds each year and remains in good standing will maintain their ESA balance through their child’s K-12 and postsecondary education, as intended.
- Expedites the processing time in which ADE must approve a qualified ESA application. To ensure that ESA students are no longer left in in the lurch when seeking to join the program, the new law streamlines the amount of time in which ADE must process an application, reducing it from 45 to 30 days.
- Empowers the State Board of Education to hear parents’ appeals of ADE’s administrative decisions without having to go through additional bureaucratic red tape. The new law clarifies that the State Board of Education has full authority to review and overrule inappropriate (and often inconsistent) administrative decisions handed down by program administrators.
This legislation helps to empower students and ensure ready access to the ESA program for eligible families.