Empowerment Scholarship Account program generates controversy

Empowerment Scholarship Account program generates controversy

gMax Ashton is a senior at Brophy College Preparatory with a 4.0 grade point average. He is also blind.

He’s able to attend Brophy in part because his parents can apply tax dollars through Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, which diverts state funds to educate qualifying special-needs students and others beyond public schools.

The ESA program has prompted opposition and a lawsuit from advocates for public schools, but Marc and Lisa Ashton, Max’s parents, said it allows them to choose the best school for their son’s personality and educational needs.

“Our son, Max, is an example of that success,” Marc said. “It proves with proper choice and proper support that a special-ed child, especially a blind child, can do anything. Arizona’s ESA law allows that.”

More than 750 students have been awarded about $10 million in all through the Empowerment Scholarship Account for the 2013-2014 school year, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

Created by a 2011 state law, the ESA program initially only distributed funds for children with physical and mental disabilities. A 2012 law added foster children, active-duty military families and students attending public schools receiving grades of D or F from the state Department of Education.

The Ashtons learned about the ESA program through connections Marc has with his job as CEO for the nonprofit Foundation for Blind Children.

As a college prep school, Brophy expects high academic achievement from its students, and Max has earned straight As in school, Marc said.

Lisa, Max’s mother, said having the freedom to choose which school Max should attend allows him to reach his potential.

“The scholarship gives us the opportunity to keep him in the environment where he can continue to learn and be constantly challenged by his peers and have fun,” she said.

The ESA program has come under fire from groups including the Arizona School Boards Association, which is among groups taking a challenge to the Arizona Supreme Court on the grounds that spending public tax dollars on private schools is unconstitutional.

“There is no documentation that it provides a higher quality of education,” said Timothy Ogle, the group’s executive director. “There is no student performance accountability standards that would say this is a good move in public policy.”

On Oct. 1, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled against the ASBA and its litigation partners.

Ogle said the ESA program circumvents the fiscal and student performance accountability the state has promoted.

“There is no way for the public to know that this investment has reaped any benefit,” he said.

Aiden Fleming, legislative liaison for the Arizona Department of Education, said the state has traditionally left it up to the parent to ultimately choose how their child is educated instead of adhering to sweeping government mandates.

“We have a pretty strong school choice initiative in Arizona,” he said. “This is just adding to the list of choices everybody can choose for their children.”

Although the Department of Education doesn’t keep statistics regarding the number of applications that are approved and denied, Fleming estimated that about 80 percent of applications received are approved. He said roughly half of those who are approved elect to participate in the ESA program.

“This gives parents full control if they want that. It’s a very intensive process, and it’s not easy for a parent to take this option because they take on the responsibility of what the school used to do,” Fleming said. “By diverting those funds, they sign a contract saying they are going to fulfill the same responsibilities as the public schools.”

Even though he and his wife undertook the responsibility for ensuring that Max is properly educated, Marc Ashton said opportunity to decide how best to educate their children is invaluable to parents.

“It allows parents of the most delicate kids, the special-ed kids, a chance to choose,” he said. “It is the first time that special-ed parents have been able to choose. That’s all we’re asking: Give us a choice.”


To qualify:

1. Attended a public school full-time for the first 100 days during the previous school year.

2. Be identified in one of the approved student populations:
• a child with a disability;
• a child of an active duty member of the military
• a child who is a ward of the juvenile court and is residing in prospective permanent placement foster care
• a child who is a ward of the juvenile court and who achieved permanency through adoption.
• a child who attended a letter grade D or F public school the prior school year