In May 2012, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed HB 2622, which provides for a whole new category of students for the state. Now, in addition to public, private, charter and homeschool students, parents can opt for a hybrid status, that of a contract student with an Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA, which can also stand for Education Savings Account).
In ongoing attempts to save the state money on education costs, yet adequately serve some of the disadvantaged pupils, ESAs were piloted last year with 150 special needs students. Beginning in the fall of 2013, nearly 250,000 children from preschool to 12th grade will be eligible.
The heart of the bill is a drastic change in the power center for education. ESA families will have 90% of their student’s public school funds disbursed to them so they can broker the services and resources needed for a year of schooling. In essence, it is a voucher system giving parents the resources and the responsibility for purchasing what they believe to be best for their offspring. Funds can be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for a 529 college savings fund.
Before homeschool families get excited about the possibilities of getting financial assistance to teach their own children, understand the framework and restrictions of this program. Eligible students are those who:
- Were enrolled in Arizona public schools the first 100 days of the previous school year, and did not leave the public school to homeschool during that year
- Are under contract to not enroll in a public school during the funding year
- Cannot attend a private school under a private school tuition tax credit
- Attend a failing school with a D or F grade, or
- Are children of active duty military parents, or
- Have special needs and a current IEP
Enrollees will not be considered homeschoolers since the government funding is a disqualifier under Arizona statute. Even though homeschool parents have always brokered the educational components for their children, but always at their own expense, and a portion of the ESA families may choose to teach at home, the statute is clear that this model is not homeschooling.
Will there be some families who are choosing to withdraw from the public school that will benefit from this bill? Absolutely. Those whose children have serious special needs may be able to bring in needed resources that work better than the public school programs, and some disabilities can net up to $27,000. But, before jumping into this seeming “windfall”, do your homework.
- A lot of paperwork is required to get into the program.
- Ongoing records will need to be kept and turned in for all expenses.
- Funds will be paid quarterly.
- Students are considered state-school students and will be subject to whatever rules and regulations are imposed by the State Department of Education.
- The state will do periodic audits of the funds and participants to ensure that the funds are used as designated.
- Parents are totally responsible to find all resources for teaching math, science, reading, grammar and social studies.
- Curriculum and service companies are already planning marketing strategies to win your dollars. Some may be less than scrupulous.
- The state will not be available for guidance and support.
- You can’t back out and decide it was too much after signing the contract.
Arizona has always been a school-choice leader, and fortunately, the right to select homeschooling as a valid option has been protected. Families now have an additional and different opportunity in the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.