Before working as director of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, Christine Accurso was an ESA mom herself and a ferocious supporter of universal expansion.
Accurso spoke at the Legislature and in front of the state Board of Education. She participated in ESA parent Facebook groups and spearheaded the Decline to Sign campaign when Save Our Schools attempted to refer universal ESAs to the ballot.
But now the ESA parent groups that Accurso sprang from have turned their backs on one of their own.
ESA parents, particularly those of students with disabilities, say they feel slighted by Accurso as the Department of Education prioritizes reimbursing private school tuition over homeschool and special education expenses.
They have frequently taken aim at her lack of experience in education and administration and say she is using her role in the program to further her own interest in private Christian schools and institutions.
But Accurso and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne contend the problems the ESA program is encountering in approving expenses stem from the administrative burden left over from the prior administration.
“The prior administration was not friendly towards ESAs. They weren’t enforcing the rules,” Horne said. “We started enforcing because we’re friendly to ESAs. We want the program to be squeaky clean. We want to be sure to pass an audit.”
After Horne won the election in November, Accurso said she called to congratulate him. He then offered her a position as executive director of the ESA program.
Before taking up the helm of ESAs, Accurso worked in senior roles at anti-abortion health centers.
From 2012 to 2016, she worked as the executive director for First Way Pregnancy Center and as a practice administrator for Morning Star OB/GYN from 2016 until taking her position at the Department of Education.
She is Catholic, evidenced by her Twitter handle @ArizonaCatholic and her longstanding advocacy and work for pro-life organizations and bills.
Accurso has long moonlighted as a citizen lobbyist, speaking in support of former state Sen. Nancy Barto’s 15-week abortion ban, some election legislation, and of course, the expansion of the ESA program.
She quickly became the talking head of universal ESAs. And once the legislation passed, Accurso pivoted to the Decline to Sign campaign, a counter to the effort by Save Our Schools to refer the universal program to the ballot.
Accurso organized parents, and children in some cases, to intercept volunteers gathering signatures for Save Our Schools and flank the petitioners with posterboards warning passersby against signing anything from the group.
She was one of the first to investigate the shortfall in Save Our Schools’ signatures. And she headed a press conference with former Gov. Doug Ducey to ask Hobbs to expedite the signature verification process on the petitions.
Horne said her ardor for the cause landed her the director position with the ESA program.
Her hiring was met with celebration from the school choice sect, but a few months in, the cracks began to show and problems Accurso had railed against in the past administration materialized in her office.
Horne said the problems the department is encountering now stem from a backlog of more than 100,000 reimbursement requests left by the last administration, with some dating as far back as 2021.
Tyler Kowch, communications director for Save Our Schools formerly worked in constituent services at the Department of Education under both former Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and Horne.
Kowch said when universal expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Program launched in September of last year, the spike of applicants crashed the Arizona Department of Education portal.
And under the law governing the program, applications had to be approved within 30 days. Kowch said the department prioritized applications over reimbursements.
“They just didn’t have the staff that they needed to deal with literally thousands of applicants,” Kowch said.
Staffing shortages would worsen when Horne and Accurso moved into the office. The two former ESA administrators were asked to resign. And transition meetings were sparse, if not nonexistent.
The department then changed how it approved expenses, and it announced on her first day in office, Accurso had approved 26,000 expenses from “approved vendors,” which parents suspected to be private school tuition reimbursements.
Kowch said the administration pivoted from how the prior administration handled expenses. Under Hoffman, the process for approving ESA expenses operated in chronological order, regardless of how complex the request might have been.
“They threw out the window the old policy of first in first out and just started prioritizing all of the private school families and processing all of their payments first and leaving all the special needs in the homeschool students requesting reimbursements to suffer,” Kowch said.
Parents showed up in droves to the last state Board of Education meeting to voice problems about long wait times on reimbursements, and issues accessing funds, tutors and help from the ESA office.
Many parents took shots at Accurso’s lack of experience, with some calling for her removal.
Horne defended Accurso.
“She’s the best administrator I’ve ever met. She works seven days a week. Long hours. She’s here at 6:45 every morning and stays till after five,” Horne said. “She’s got a huge, huge task and she is extremely efficient in dealing with it.”
But still parent concern remains.
Kathy Boltz, an ESA mother who has been on the program for six years, was in an ESA parent Facebook group and participated in the Decline to Sign campaign. But she’s been disappointed in how the universal program has been run under Accurso.
Boltz has been particularly concerned with Accurso lobbying for the universal program in other states. Accurso spoke at two events for Virginia Senate candidate James Bergida and at an event for the Front Royal Catholic civic education group in late January.
Accurso mentioned the program has been benefiting Catholic churches.
“I heard from tons of pastors that once ESAs started flowing into their schools, their plate collection went up because the parents had money,” Accurso said.
And she talked about how the program started in Arizona and encouraged parents to start somewhere, anywhere to get a universal school choice program off the ground.
But with that sentiment in mind, Boltz feels the program has morphed into one unusable for the students it was initially intended for.
“They used special ed students to get a toe hold and went from there,” Boltz said. “Using ESA is often an education option of last resort. And now, people are terrified to use the funds, especially for special ed students.”