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SB 1279/HB 2482 qualifies all school age children to participate in the ESA program over a three year, phased-in process.
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program currently provides children with disabilities, children from failing schools, and other underserved populations the funding necessary to allow those children to pursue the education that will help them achieve their full potential. SB 1279/HB 2482 qualifies all school age children to participate in the ESA program over a three year, phased-in process. The enrollment cap to the Empowerment Scholarship Account program remains the same with less than 6,000 students each year allowed to qualify for the program at this time.
In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down Arizona’s school voucher program for students with special needs and those in foster care, but noted that, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution.”[i]
Following the Supreme Court’s direction, the 2011 Arizona legislature passed SB 1553, establishing empowerment accounts for students with disabilities. The empowerment accounts disburse 90% of the funds the state would have paid for that student at a public school into an account that parents can use on tuition at a qualified school, textbooks, curriculum, and even fees for standardized tests. This program was the first of its kind and led the nation in education innovation by placing students’ needs first.
Several groups, including the Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Board Association, filed lawsuits to challenge the ESA program and sought an injunction to freeze the funds awarded to the students. The program was upheld in superior court and was unanimously upheld by a three-judge panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals on October 1, 2013. Although this decision was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, the Court denied consideration of the case on March 21, 2014, effectively upholding the constitutionality of the ESA program.
Between 2012 and 2015, the ESA program was expanded to include the following groups of students and improved with the following changes to ensure the program operates in alignment with the legislature’s original intent:
With the effectiveness of this program proven and satisfaction rate of parents high, it is time to give the same opportunity to all public school students in Arizona.[ii] With only 2,406 participants in the program currently, there is room for this program to grow and continue to serve the student population of this state. SB 1279/HB 2482 will expand the program to all public school students over a three year period. The 2016-2017 school year will allow kindergarten through fifth grade students to enroll in the ESA program without the previously outlined restrictions. The 2017-2018 school year will allow kindergarten through eighth grade students to participate, and the 2018-2019 school year will allow all students, kindergarten through twelfth grade, to apply to the program.
SB 1279/HB 2482 does not change the enrollment cap on the ESA program – currently set at 0.5 percent of the previous school year’s total number of public and public charter school students.[iii] At this time, the number equates to over 5,000 children that the ESA program can accept.[iv] A three year, phased-in expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program will open doors of opportunity to students that they were unable to access before.
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program is providing critical aid to children whose needs are not being met in a traditional public school environment. SB 1279/HB 2482 will provide the opportunity for more students to succeed in the state’s education system.
[i] Cain v. Horne, 220 Ariz. 77, 84, ¶ 29, 202 P.3d 1178, 1185 (2009).
[ii] Arizona Department of Education, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts External Customer Satisfaction Survey Report, (October, 2014).
[iii] The enrollment cap is set to expire in 2019.
[iv] Arizona Department of Education, 2013-2014 State Report Card, http://www.azed.gov/research-evaluation/files/2015/01/state-report-card-2014_final.pdf (last visited January 30, 2016).