I am the mother of four children, two of whom participate in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. That means I am one of nearly 7,000 parents whose personal information was inadvertently disclosed by the Arizona Department of Education. And because of the department’s utter failure to properly manage this program, my children and thousands of children across the state are not getting the education they deserve.
I didn’t make the choice to enroll my children in the ESA program lightly, but the public school system simply could not meet my children’s special needs, and the ESA program empowered me to customize an education that addresses their individual circumstances. The results have been nothing short of amazing.
Recently, however, the department’s mismanagement has made it increasingly difficult to navigate the ESA program, a program that has been such a godsend to my children. In fact, keeping up with the department’s increasingly arbitrary and rapidly changing rules has become so difficult that last month, I joined a group of mothers in filing a lawsuit against the department.
That was before news broke that the department distributed my personal and financial information (including the specific amount of money in my children’s ESA accounts), and that of all other ESA participants, to the public and to anti-school-choice activists.
ESA parents learned about the data breach not from the department itself but from the media. Only after families read about it in the news did the department admit that it had given our names, email addresses, and our children’s private disability categories to members of the public. It’s offensive and frustrating that department officials didn’t consider the violation of our federally protected privacy rights important enough to warrant anything more than a dismissive email a day after the breach had already been splattered all over the news.
The department’s blunder is especially worrisome because our sensitive information has made its way into the hands of Save Our Schools, a group that is openly antagonistic to the ESA program. Thanks to the department’s mismanagement, ESA opponents now know exactly whom to target.
The department’s breach of our personal information is only one example of the many ways it has harmed ESA families and our vulnerable children. Its arbitrary handling of the program has also resulted in an endless and nonsensical blizzard of paperwork for parents. It requires them to submit complicated expense reports and then withholds payments until it finally gets around to approving them. And expenditures that are approved for some parents are denied for others, often for the same purchase and sometimes even within the same family.
Department bureaucrats can deny any educational expenditure at will and withhold funding for simple but non-fraudulent errors by parents or even for mathematical errors by department administrators themselves. Administrators then freeze our accounts until we explain basic math to them or why our expenditures are allowed, which can take days, since the department refuses to provide adequate and consistent answers by email. Parents have learned never to call on the phone, since the department typically places our calls on hold for hours at a time and also refuses to honor any approvals for expenditures that it gives us over the phone. It’s unclear from one month to the next, sometimes from one day to the next, what the department will permit or forbid –especially since it refuses to communicate clearly with parents – and that means we often receive our children’s ESA funds days, weeks, or months late. That forces those of us who can to either pay out of pocket or to withdraw our children from the tutoring and therapeutic services they need.
Our children don’t deserve any of this. That’s why we sued the department. We’re all just trying to use the program to do what’s best for our kids. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get the state’s educators to obey the law and do right by Arizona children. The ESA program was designed to supplement the charter and public school systems so that every child can succeed, even children whose unique limitations prevent them from succeeding in a neurotypical, one-size-fits-all environment. But the department’s systematic and egregious mismanagement of the program shows a basic contempt for the best interests of the children this program was designed to help.
It’s time to knock it off and do what the ESA program was created to do – provide each child with a real chance at educational success. It’s time to stop bullying the families who participate. And it’s time to do what’s right for our kids.
Kayla Svedin is a Phoenix mother whose children use an Empowerment Scholarship Account.