Dozens of families in the state’s school voucher program are sitting on account balances of $50,000 or more, with nine of them accumulating more than $100,000 of taxpayer money over several years, according to public records.
The high amounts of unspent money in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program suggests some parents of the nearly 7,000 students enrolled might be hoarding the money.
In order to qualify for the program, students must fit into one of several groups such as having a disability, a military parent or attending a D or F rated school.
The ESA program was developed so parents could opt out of public education in favor of a private school or an alternative that may better suit their child. The program is taxpayer funded and an estimated $110 million was appropriated for the current fiscal year, according to the Department of Education. The total balance added up from all accounts exceeds $33 million.
Parents receive 90% of the amount that would go to their student’s school district, and some students with disabilities can receive as much as $40,000 per year.
State Education Department spokesman Richie Taylor said the amount going into each account depends on the type of disability the student has.
The account with the most money has $128,000 and has been active since the 2015-16 school year.
The department’s ESA handbook says parents are required to “spend something (any dollar amount)” within their contract year, and unused funds continue to roll over on a quarterly basis.
Once a student leaves the program after the 12th grade, they will have four years or until they complete college or a vocational school to spend the rest of the money, according to the handbook.
They are also allowed to spend the money on college or vocational school and any money left over after the account is retired goes back into the general fund, the handbook says.
Amy Chan, whose son is in the program, said she doesn’t understand what the parents with high account balances are even spending the money on.
“How are they educating their kids without using that money,” Chan said. “In our case,
we’re using almost the entire amount of ESA funds that we’re getting.”
Chan, who is the state’s former elections director and currently sits on the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, did not want to publicly reveal his disability.
Her son’s class has just 12 students and has a social and emotional focus in addition to academics, she said.
“I don’t even know what we would do if we weren’t sending him to a private school,” Chan said.
Chan did say their account is on the higher side of annual funds, but that she uses most of it for the private school tuition.
Chan said her only question for the parents with balances of more than $100,000 is what are they doing for their kids.
“The Legislature may need to look at how to retire funds at some point,” she said.
Save our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker, who also saw the same account records, said the high balances show “some parents are using their ESA account as a personal slush fund.”
“If you’re amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars, then clearly you’re not using the ESA to educate your child in the way the average taxpayer would expect,” she said.
Penich-Thacker said she has seen some ESA Facebook groups posting about hanging onto the account balances since they can be used on college tuition for some students.
Penich-Thacker proposed an annual check-in, at a minimum, to make sure parents aren’t hoarding funds for years.
As of January 30, no lawmaker has sponsored any legislation that would affect the account balances.