The Arizona Department of Education’s proposed edits to the Empowerment Scholarship Account handbook were met with backlash and claims of improper outside influence in a state board of education meeting today.
Some parents, many of whom have children with disabilities, have been continually outspoken against the current administration and the potential havoc the proposed changes could wreak on their children’s educations.
And in tandem, the Arizona Coalition of Parents for Equal Student Access (AZCP) raised the alarm on American Federation for Children, a universal school choice lobbying group, influencing changes to next year’s handbook more so than any feedback from families.
Christine Accurso, director of the ESA program, denied any wrongdoing and said AFC’s work was “purely clerical.” Other parents countered the criticism and spoke in support of the program, though some did so on the direction of a mass text message from AFC.
Though all have stressed they want the program to stay in place, the flurry of public comments and board discussion heard today revealed strong splits among ESA parents and advocates on the best path forward.
And amid increased scrutiny from the board, the program, which surpassed 50,000 participants last week, remains doused in turmoil.
The board received upwards of 600 written comments from parents ahead of the meeting. And with around 500 sent before the last board meeting, President Daniel Corr announced the board would move its written comment submission deadline from Friday to Thursday to allow time to sort through the feedback.
Input from parents went beyond written comment as attendees occupied the entirety of the meeting room and surged into an overflow room upstairs.
The AZCP circulated a press release at the start of the meeting claiming Esly Montenegro, the implementation director for AFC, directly edited and redlined the first draft of the handbook, while parent feedback did not make it into the first version presented to the board.
Parents and board members pointed out large swaths of the handbook had been crossed out, including the list of approved therapies; information on supplementary materials; and a how-to on creating a help desk ticket.
Board member Karla Krivickas said she noticed proposed changes “disproportionately impact students with disabilities.”
And Jennifer Clark, board member and founder of Love Your School, a school choice advocate group, gave Accurso recommendations for changes, many of which were leaving in sections crossed out in the first draft.
Accurso claimed Montenegro was doing clerical work as the department is understaffed. She said Montenegro was only inputting Accurso’s changes, not directly editing on behalf of AFC.
She said there was “absolutely no outside influence.”
But parents remain skeptical as Montenegro sent out a blast marketing text message on Friday asking parents, “Can we count on you to share why you love ESA’s (sic) or any positive feedback?” and included a link to register to speak.
Kathy Boltz, an ESA parent and organizer with AZCP, pointed out Accurso’s son is a fellow of AFC. And she spoke at an AFC-adjacent school choice event at Grand Canyon University in early February.
AFC also funded the Decline to Sign campaign and has been a top advocate for universal expansion.
Steve Smith, state director of AFC, denied any accusations of improper influence.
“There was no creative input. There was no redlined changes made by anybody from our team, 100% of the of the input of the changes of the content was all from the department of education. None of it was from us whatsoever,” he said.
He also spoke to AFC’s relationship with Accurso and said, “we are simply advocating under whoever’s leadership of the department of education.”
But regardless of the origin of changes, ESA parents expressed their continued fear and frustration.
One parent pointed out that she could not afford to wait on reimbursements for Braille and other more expensive education tools she used for her children who are visually impaired.
Another said she feared she could lose the special education curriculum her child has used for nine years.
Stacey Brown, a head ESA advocate, addressed the dissent from the ESA parents. Brown said she feels the administration’s proposed changes are the right moves to keep the program accountable.
She said she and other parents have not encountered the same problems others are facing.
“I’ve had no issues at all. I know hundreds and hundreds of families who have had no issues at all and are very appreciative of having this program be aligned with the law,” Brown said.
She said more parents are supportive of the new administration than dissatisfied.
“The loud voices that you hear are not the majority of families,” she said. “Those speaking positively are not the minority.”
Another parent countered the statement later in public comment.
“The original ESA handbook was not created for the majority, it was created for students like mine, who require customized education that meets their varied needs,” Sarah Blank, a parent and member of the ADE parent advisory committee said.
The board will meet again on March 30, for further input from the department and the board on the handbook. The final draft is due April 11.a