The State Board of Education voted to approve the Empowerment Scholarship Account handbook today, though two board members voted against adopting the final draft, citing frustration with accepting last minute “substantive” changes without sufficient stakeholder input.
Board members singled out a new proposed rule from the Arizona Department of Education barring the use of ESA funds and Student Tuition Organization funds within the same year.
Other concerns included the evaluation paths for students with disabilities and the continuation of debit cards for every ESA applicant. The board also brought up frustration with the latest draft of the handbook lacking redlined edits to track the changes made.
ESA executive director Christine Accurso outlined the key differences in the final draft in a presentation to the board today.
She noted some families are inadvertently “double dipping” and switching between STOs and ESA funds quarterly, which leads to the department, private schools and parents having trouble keeping track of funds.
She said ADE receives “dozens of checks” back over STO and ESA confusion and said the department received one for $40,000 last week.
She said, on advice from attorneys, that the department could implement a rule barring the use of STOs and ESAs in the same contract year.
Board member Jennifer Clark said this was her main reason for voting against the final draft. She noted the families of students with disabilities are more likely to switch to an ESA mid-year and the change would bar them from doing so.
She said allowing families to switch quarterly has been a longstanding procedure and made note of a lack of input from parents on the change as it was introduced in the most recent version of the handbook.
“Now we’re changing 10 years of administrative procedure based on a decision to reasonably interpret the law in a completely opposite way that benefits potentially STOs and private schools but not ESA families,” Clark said. “And so, I’m concerned that ADE is focused on potentially pleasing STOs and private schools.”
The change was part of the reason board member Karla Krivickas also voted against adopting the final draft.
“We didn’t even know that issue was on the table,” Krivickas said. “We didn’t get an opportunity to hear from stakeholders.”
Accurso also went over the changes to the evaluation process for students with disabilities within the program to align with a law passed last session.
Parents can present an Individualized Education Plan, 504 plan or a review from a Multidisciplinary Evaluation Team to qualify for the program.
But the new law holds the department shall contract with a third party to do disability evaluations for students already enrolled in ESA who want to change their eligibility or funding category.
Accurso said they were “refreshing” the request for proposal (RFP) from the prior administration to find a third party to contract with.
In the meantime, parents can either seek a list of qualified providers from their county superintendent or seek out an independent evaluation from a physician, psychologist or psychiatrist for the sake of qualifying for ESA.
Mark Joraanstad, a spokesperson for the Arizona School Administrators Association, said the handbook “equated” the IEP eligibility process for public schools and an independent evaluation for ESA despite an evaluation being just one step of the entire assessment process for students with disabilities.
“Parents who use this method to get ESA funding and then possibly return to a district or charter school will be very unhappy when their students are not immediately provided with special education and related services and start at the beginning of the process,” Joraanstad said.
He also noted districts’ strict adherence to federal law in using the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to serve students with disabilities and asked if the department had consulted the auditor general or had asked the attorney general about the “two-track method qualifying for services in contravention of federal law.”
Colette Chapman, associate superintendent for ADE’s Exceptional Student Services division, said the public-school IDEA requirements and protections do not transfer over to students placed in private schools, though students in nonprofit private schools would be eligible for IDEA funds for certain services.
Board member Scott Hagerman still said he was worried about the independent evaluation, though he acknowledged it was allowable.
“I think it opens up a lot of problems both for districts on the backend and for parents not getting the data and the information they need for an evaluation process,” Hagerman said.
Board members also continued to express concerns over the shaky future of debit cards used by ESA families.
Member Jacqui Clay asked Accurso how the department planned to address rural families who want to use debit cards.
Accurso said ClassWallet’s payment options outside the debit card should suffice, though Clay said there was “an unofficial vote of no confidence in ClassWallet” across the state.
Board President Daniel P. Corr echoed the concern about the lack of universal use of the debit card but said he would still vote yes.
“It’s not a perfect document,” Corr said. “But we should not let perfection be in the way of progress.”
The board voted 6-2 to approve the final draft of the handbook.
“I definitely appreciate everyone’s opinion, even the people who disagree with me, I’m here to serve them as well. And the board members, even the ones who voted no, I don’t take that personally, I understand their concerns,” Accurso said in an interview after the vote. “We will have a longer runway, if you will, for our handbook next year.”