Parents parked their strollers outside the State Board of Education board room, sat their children in the gallery and took to the podium to offer further feedback on the latest draft of the Empowerment Scholarship Account handbook on March 30.
The board was once again hit by a wave of written and verbal feedback, but parents say their input is still failing to materialize in the newest draft of the handbook.
The board received more than 200 pages of comments, compounded with more than 600 pages received in earlier meetings.
“I’m not sure where all this is going,” Danielle Thomas, an ESA parent, said.
But Christine Accurso, director of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, said she had “read everything the office had received.”
“Obviously there’s a lot of growing pains going from 15,000 students to 50,000 students,” Accurso said.
The general theme in concerns brought up by parents was a lack of clarity and inconsistency, which one parent characterized as “programmatic abuse.”
The specific problems for parents include the future and fate of ESA debit cards and the oversight of supplemental items for homeschool students and students with disabilities.
Parents also brought up the disappearances of the approved therapies list, mentions of the ESA platform ClassWallet and the Help Desk system from the last draft of the handbook.
Accurso gave point-by-point responses to input from parents and board members, addressing how they manifested into the most recent draft version.
She said after the first draft, she returned to the original handbook approved by the board last year and worked to incorporate the suggestions she could. Some changes were immediate, while others are being workshopped by the department or analyzed by their legal counsel.
The list of approved therapies for students with disabilities was added back into the handbook, as well as all mentions of ClassWallet and information about filing a ticket with the Help Desk.
Accurso did clarify that they would eventually be replacing ClassWallet as well as the Help Desk software.
She said the special education unit of ADE was looking at the section for students with disabilities to finalize the language.
But in the meantime, she clarified that the requirement of documentation of a plan or evaluation for students with disabilities was not new. And she said she had added “private qualified examiner” to those approved to submit documentation.
She also said specific items would not have to be listed on an individual education plan, and general terms like “sensory items” would be accepted.
And for other supplemental items not obviously considered an educational expense, she said the department would not be requiring a written attestation as previously mentioned, and instead included a note within the ClassWallet marketplace to act as a built-in attestation.
And she clarified that parents could write their own curriculum to a purchase without formal curriculum attached.
Accurso also addressed “the ever so popular debit cards.” She called the debit cards an “administrative problem that’s gotten way out of hand.”
She said there are 142,000 debit card transactions dating back to July 2021, many of which do not have receipts. And those that do have receipts are not always clear on what item was purchased.
“Even with 13,000 students in the program it was difficult,” Accurso said. She said they had not “found a practical way” to open up debit cards to the more than 50,000 participants in the program, but the department was “open to ideas.”
And in terms of ensuring oversight, Accurso said the department was working with an investigator to look at inappropriate use of funds as well and are trying to correct parents instead of revoking their ESA contract.
“I don’t want you to think we’re taking a punitive approach, we’re taking an educational approach,” Accurso said.
Board members had a few more tweaks, in terms of formatting and consistency in language.
They also offered insight on the trajectory of the program.
Board member Karla Krivickas stressed the changes have been quick, and with any quick changes to a government program, strong backlash follows. But she notes the problems this administration is seeing are not new.
“This is a brand-new program, never before done, anywhere. As such, this is going to require constant iteration,” Krivickas, said. “The issues with the administration of this program have surpassed four administrations, they’re not unique.”
Board member Jennifer Clark was absent from the meeting but provided written feedback, much of which Accurso addressed. But Clark said she saw a “lack of meaningful dialogue.”
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne pushed back on the assumption, referencing meetings Accurso held with parents weeks back.
“Within one week, she had five meetings,” Horne said. “Five meetings in one week amid all of her other burdens, I think there’s been a very meaningful dialogue.”
Board member Jacqui Clay gave her “thousand feet” view of the continued negotiations and debates on handbook changes. She said she worries about the involved parties becoming “siloed.”
“My fear is that this is going to fall apart. My fear is that sustainability is going to be beyond our reach because we are not effectively communicating,” Clay said. “If this thing is going to work, we can either microwave it, or we can slow cook it, which one is going to be better?”
The next draft of the handbook is due April 13, and the next board meeting is set for April 24.