An error by Mesa Public Schools could lead to 27 homeschooled students losing access to the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program they were mistakenly granted.
If it hadn’t been for one parent whose son was rescinded an ESA voucher months after mistakenly being approved, the Arizona Department of Education may have never found out about the bigger issue.
Mike Retel applied for his son, Emerson, to get an ESA in February for the 2019-20 school year and was approved. His son has a learning disability, which qualifies him for the voucher, but to be eligible all students also need to be full-time at a public school. Emerson was homeschooled.
So in June, four months after being approved, Retel applied again for his other children to receive ESAs. The law states that if one child is qualified, all siblings will be as well. However, in doing so the department realized Emerson never should have been approved in the first place; so the department rescinded his approval on July 2 – mere weeks before the start of the school year.
ESAs allow parents or guardians to use taxpayer money that would have gone to a student’s public school on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum. The ESA program began specifically for special needs students, and has since grown to allow an array of students – from failing schools and children whose parents are in the military.
Emerson attended Eagleridge Enrichment Center in Mesa, which a spokeswoman for Mesa Public Schools confirmed is not a full-time public school. Eagleridge’s website describes it as “providing innovative enrichment opportunities and support for all homeschooled students.”
“It’s homeschool enrichment, so most students would attend one or two days a week,” Heidi Hurst said.
Students attending Eagleridge were already on the ESA program through the department, though, which only made Retel more upset with why he thought he was being targeted.
A letter to Retel from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office said the office will review the files of “other Eagleridge attendees to determine their eligibility.”
Hurst said Eagleridge has identified 27 students as being in the ESA program.
The reason some students received ESA money was due to a reporting error about the school’s status last year, Hurst said.
Hurst said it would ultimately be up to the department to decide if those students would lose their voucher money in the future.
“I don’t want others to lose funding,” Retel said, adding he just wants his son to get the education he needs.
Not knowing what to do, Retel took the advice of other parents to reach out to the American Federation for Children, a school-choice organization, for assistance, but said no progress has been made yet other than some advice the group gave him.
Steve Smith, the state director for AFC, and Kim Martinez, the spokeswoman, both wanted to know why it took so long for Retel to find out about his son’s status, and the answer, according to the department, comes back to the Legislature.
Richie Taylor, a department spokesman, said when Retel applied for his other children in June, that was when processing ESA contracts for the upcoming school year was just beginning. Until a state budget is finalized, the department has no way of knowing how much money will go to each voucher for the students who do qualify, Taylor said.
The legislative session this year lasted 134 days, which was the longest since 2013, giving the current administration far less time for processing applications. In contrast, the department under Diane Douglas’s never had a session end past May 10.
Retel told the Arizona Capitol Times the revocation left him with minimal time to find another school, something he still has yet to accomplish.
This latest ESA controversy follows three videos in three months from AFC criticizing the Department of Education and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman for mishandling the underfunded program.
The department demanded Navajo families repay ESA money they erroneously spent at a New Mexico private school. A second video one month later featured a Sierra Vista boy who was initially rejected from the ESA program because he has an active-duty military parent, but the parent was his stepmother, not a biological parent. And in July a parent complained about the unusually long wait times she had to deal with over the phone while trying to get answers in a timely manner.
Taylor and Hoffman both have adamantly talked about how the department needs the full funding that the Legislature is holding hostage to be able to properly run the program. It’s a complaint Douglas shared, too.
State law allows for up to 4% of the funds allocated for the ESA program to be used for administration, but lawmakers only authorized a portion of that.
Both the current and former superintendents pushed for more funds to administer the voucher program. The department now receives about $1.25 million for ESA administration, and spends about half of that on employee pay and benefits.
Taylor said if the Legislature fully funded the program they could more than double the size of the staff of the ESA team and provide the level of service families deserve. Right now there are 13 full-time positions responsible for the ESA program, but only nine employees are currently available at the department each day.
“This isn’t a political game or strategy by Hoffman’s administration. We simply need more money to manage a program that continues to grow,” Taylor said. “To suggest that they want anything other than the best for these students is both offensive and wrong.”