The Arizona Department of Education and state legislators came to a compromise that would no longer punish students and parents on the Navajo reservation who use school vouchers to attend out-of-state schools.
And despite concerns that the bill would be a “Trojan Horse” to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, it holds the line on the controversial vouchers.
SB1545 holds harmless eight families from the Window Rock area on the Navajo Nation. They received letters from the Department of Education demanding they refund the state money they had received in school vouchers after the families used the funds to pay for a private school just across the border in New Mexico.
In a prepared statement, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said her administration has worked diligently to find a resolution to the situation affecting these Native American families and were able to do so with a bipartisan effort.
“[It] does not punish the families and provides adequate time for them to determine the best next step for their children’s education,” Hoffman said in the statement.
The bill would allow the students to remain in the New Mexico school through July 1, 2020, after which they would have to change schools to one in-state if they want to continue using their vouchers, formerly known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
The bill only applies to those ESA-approved students on the reservation who attend an out-of-state school within two miles of the border, and would not expand to any other students. State law still prohibits the vouchers, which are used like debit cards, from being used for out-of-state tuition in other circumstances.
Hoffman said the bill respects the will of Arizona voters who overwhelmingly voted against a measure to expand the state’s ESA program in 2018.
“This is an example of what we can do when we work together to find solutions to our problems,” Hoffman said, and she also thanked the legislators from Legislative District 7 for their help on the issue.
Richie Taylor, Hoffman’s communications director, said there were 10 total students who received letters from ADE requesting a repayment for the funds that were not approved.
Taylor said the students were approved for the vouchers, but not to spend them out-of-state, which is why they received letters suspending the account until repayment was made.