Students living within the boundaries of Indian reservations are eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers, which allow qualified students to use public money to attend a private or parochial school, yet a high percentage have been denied in the last two school years.
According to data from the Arizona Department of Education, 99 of 233 applications for students living on reservations, or about 43 percent, were denied for the 2017-2018 school year. Of those, 58 students were rejected because they had not attended a public school for the first 100 days of the prior school year.
Another 24 applications were denied because they simply were not complete; 11 were missing a birth certificate or signatures; two students were not eligible to attend kindergarten when they applied; two did not reside within the reservation boundaries; and two more did not provide proof of residency.
In an email to the Arizona Capitol Times, ADE spokesman Stefan Swiat said the department tries to “get the best information possible in [parents’] hands” to understand eligibility requirements before they apply for their children.
In particular, he pointed to the high number of students denied for not meeting a public school enrollment requirement.
The department’s website does lay out specific requirements for different groups of qualified students. For students on reservations, the requirements include attendance at a state district or charter school for the first 100 days of the prior school year. Alternatively, those students could have received scholarships from a School Tuition Organization, or STO.
“It’s unfortunate for the students and the parents that such a high percentage of denials are being issued for an eligibility requirement that is clearly outlined in the application,” Swiat said.
The assumption being that some families may have been wrongly informed or even misled about their eligibility.
Advocates who have worked with families on reservations reject that notion.
Kim Martinez, spokeswoman for the American Federation for Children, said the state Department of Education should have a special set of procedures when working with tribal families lest they slip through the cracks. The American Federation for Children has been a staunch supporter of the expansion of ESAs and school choice in Arizona.
Martinez said the department’s ESA office has incorrectly denied families or issued denials based on small errors that could have been corrected. Rather, families may just give up.
“They cannot take a systemic approach with these families,” she said. “After receiving a denial letter, that understandably causes the tribal parent to give up and stop pursuing an ESA.”
A similar trend is developing among the applications for the 2018-2019 school year.
Not all of those applications have been processed yet, but the department did provide tallies for those that have.
As of August 7, a determination had not been made for 130 of 213 applications received for students living on reservations. Of those that were resolved, 55 were approved, and 24 were denied – that’s a denial rate of about 30 percent.
The remaining four applications were simply closed. According to ADE’s parent handbook, an account may be closed upon request, because an application for renewal was not received on time, because a student exited the program upon turning 18 or completing the 12th grade, or because the student was removed from the ESA program.
Swiat did not immediately return requests for an update on the applications that have been processed.