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New voucher rulebook delayed a year for parent input

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Following backlash from parents in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program and Republican lawmakers,  the State Board of Education adopted last year’s program handbook in lieu of approving a new redlined draft from the Arizona Department of Education today.  

ESA parents claimed they lacked the opportunity to meaningfully critique the draft handbook put up for public comment by the department last week. The concern from ESA parents prompted a letter from Republican lawmakers urging board members to delay any changes to the handbook. Ultimately, the board passed a motion from Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne to forgo adopting a new handbook and form a working group to garner input instead.  

“In any case, I think it’s important that we have full opportunity for everyone to give their input before a decision is made,” Horne said.  

A draft 2024-25 handbook was made available on the State Board of Education website March 15, according to ADE spokesman Doug Nick.  

John Ward, ESA executive director, said they had solicited parent input on the current handbook since September, sought feedback from the Parent Advisory Committee and integrated a “majority” of parent feedback into the draft posted last week. 

However, today in a press conference, Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, and former ESA director Christine Accurso, claimed parents were not given ample opportunity to weigh in on the redlined version of the handbook.  

“When I discovered the department submitted their new proposed handbook to the state board, it really shocked me because it says the recommendation was for adoption, and we parents hadn’t seen it,” Accurso said.  

Accurso and Hoffman did not point to specific problems with the 2024-25 handbook, but rather said their overarching concern lay with a lack of time and space for parent input.  

In public comment today, parents took issue with “arbitrarily disallowed items.” And Hoffman, along with a handful of Republican lawmakers from the Freedom Caucus, sent a letter to the board over the weekend claiming the proposed changes “restrict the program further than the legislature intended.”  

Ward told the board today the proposed “substantive” changes included in the 2024-25 handbook aimed at increasing compliance with state law and ensuring “prudent stewardship” of the program.  

Under the redlined draft handbook, account holders would be barred from using ESA solely for summer use, as Ward noted parents could receive two quarters of funding for summer programs while enrolling students in the public school during the regular school year.  

ESA account holders would also be required to be the sole custodians of their accounts, given instances of private schools running parent accounts for them, according to Ward. And students with disabilities above grade 12 would need to submit education plans annually.  

A key change to the program seized on by ESA parents was the disavowal of items “that do not involve a reasonable expense.” 

The draft barred purchases of “luxury items,” which the department defined as a “designer item or an item whose price is at or near the highest end of the price range for the type of item. “ 

Ward noted past attempts to purchase a $15,000 luxury wristwatch, a $5,000 massage chair, $24,000 golf simulators and a $2,400 food freeze dryer with ESA funds.  

“When there are extravagant purchases being made, it puts the program in a very difficult position,” Ward said. 

Horne made a motion to forgo any changes to the handbook for the next year, re-adopt the 2023-2024 handbook and revisit any changes pushed by proposed working groups by next March.  

The board voted 10-1.  

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