• What comes next for Arizona's school voucher program?

    What comes next for Arizona’s school voucher program?

  • The Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona

    The Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona

  • People opposed to expansion of Arizon school voucher program protest

    People opposed to expansion of Arizon school voucher program protest

  • Allhands: Vouchers won't kill public education

    Allhands: Vouchers won’t kill public education

The Arizona Legislature has passed one of the most expansive school-voucher programs in the nation. Here’s what you need to know.

The Arizona Legislature has passed one of the most expansive school-voucher programs in the nation.

In April, Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law Senate Bill 1431, which allows all 1.1 million public-school students to apply for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. The program gives public funds to students to use on private-school tuition, therapies and other educational services. Republican lawmakers narrowly approved the plan, which allows an estimated 30,000 students to take part in the program by 2022.

Many Republicans hail the plan as a novel way to give students more access to the schools they want. But Democrats and some moderate Republicans say it will take millions of dollars away from public schools to subsidize private and religious education for some families that might already be able to afford it.

Since its passage, there have been unanswered questions about how the expansion will be implemented. The Arizona Republic sought to answer them, but in some instances, state officials said they can’t fully explain how the program will be implemented because it was advanced by the Legislature and signed into law so quickly.

Here’s what we know at this point.

What is the Empowerment Scholarship Account program?

The program allocates to qualifying families 90 percent of the state money that would otherwise have been given to the district school or charter school previously attended by the student. The money is put into an account, which parents or guardians can access using debit-like cards.


Everything you need to know about the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona.

How long have these been around?

The Legislature created the program in 2011 for disabled students. Since then, other categories of children were allowed to participate, including those in poor-performing schools, children from military families, those living on Native American reservations, foster children, and the brothers and sisters of students who have ESAs. About 3,360 students currently use the program.

What changed under the new law?

Lawmakers expanded eligibility. Eventually, all of Arizona’s 1.1 million public-school students will be able to apply. However, only an estimated 5,500 students will be eligible each year and no more than about 30,000 students will be allowed into the program by 2022.

READ MORE: Gov. Doug Ducey signs expansion of Arizona’s school-voucher program

When does the expanded program go into effect and when can I apply?

Laws go into effect 90 days after the the legislative session ends, which likely will be in the next several weeks. If that’s the case, the ESA expansion will be the law sometime in August.

As soon as state education officials learn the effective date of the measure, parents will be able to apply.

“Parents should not delay in putting in their application,” said Michael Bradley, chief of staff for state schools Superintendent Diane Douglas, adding that the department is expecting a high level of interest in the program.

Children who qualified under the old program, including children from poor-performing schools, students with special needs, and those living on Native American reservations, don’t need to wait until August.

How do I apply under the old program?

You can apply on the Arizona Department of Education’s website, www.azed.gov.

How can I apply under the new law?

You can fill out an application with the Arizona Department of Education on the morning that the measure goes into effect.

Who can apply for the new program?

This year, students entering kindergarten, as well as first-graders, sixth-graders and ninth-graders can apply. With the exception of children who are entering kindergarten, students would have first had to attend public schools — traditional district schools or charter schools — for 100 days during the prior school year to meet eligibility requirements.

MORE: Why Arizona officials don’t know which private schools benefit from expanding voucher program

If my child already has an ESA, does the new law affect me?

Yes. Families with ESAs, who are in good standing, will be able to renew their application for the program, and will keep the same level of funding unless they are deemed low-income. Families deemed low-income might see a boost in funding. Also, ESA families must abide by new expenditure reporting, and must ensure their children take certain standardized tests.

Are students already in private school eligible? 



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How old do kindergartners have to be?

They can be as young as 4 years old, a change from previous years, when state education officials set the minimum age at 5 years old.

Up to what age can students receive funding? 

Until the student graduates from high school, receives a general-education diploma, or reaches the age of 22, whichever happens first.

Will any students get preference over others under the new program?

No. Officials say eligibility will be determined on a first-come, first-served basis.

What happens if 5,500 students rush to sign up, and the enrollment cap is reached? 

The Department of Education will deny all applications once the cap is reached, said Bradley, the top official at the department. Applications for the 2018-19 school year can be submitted starting in February 2018.

How much money do I get if I’m accepted?

It depends. Children without special needs and who leave traditional district schools likely would receive about $4,500 a year. Children without special needs who leave charter schools will get more funding, about $6,300 a year. Students with special needs can receive even more money, ranging from $7,800 to more than $30,000, depending on the severity of the disability.

Kindergartners receive ESA funding based on what it would cost to send them to school for half a day.

Do low-income families receive special consideration? 

The new measure allows low-income families and children who are or have been in foster care to receive 100 percent of the funding that would have otherwise gone to the child’s public school. Other students get 90 percent of the public funding.

MORE: Arizona taxpayer-funded vouchers benefiting students in more-affluent areas

“Low-income” is defined as families earning 250 percent or less of the federal poverty level, or about $61,000 annually for a family of four.

Who determines if I meet the low-income qualifications?

When filling out the application, you can declare yourself “low income,” according to the legislation. Additionally, the measure requires officials with the Department of Revenue and Department of Education to come up with a process to determine whether a student should be classified as low income using the family’s tax returns.

What can I do if my application is rejected? 

The Department of Education must tell you why the application was denied, and education officials said you will have 10 days to correct the application. If it is denied again, you can appeal through an administrative-court process.


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What can I spend the money on? 

Private-school tuition, uniforms, books, tutoring, educational therapies, and other home-based curriculum. The measure also allows students who are in the ESA program to spend the funds on postsecondary education, such as community-college classes and test-preparation classes.

What are prohibited purchases? 

Computers, iPads, transportation, child care, summer camp, field trips, ?fees incurred from missed or canceled appointments, among other expenses. ESA money cannot be transferred from the debit card to a different account. State officials say that allows them to prevent improper spending.

Can the ESA money be used for college? 

The legislation banned ESA funds from being deposited into college-savings accounts, such as Coverdell education-savings accounts. However, students can use the ESA money for college classes while enrolled in a qualifying school. Once they are done with the ESA program, excess money in their ESA accounts will go back into the state’s general fund.

Do I have to report how I spend the money? 

Yes. ESA recipients are currently required to submit expenditure reports to the Department of Education. The new law requires state officials to work with a financial-management firm to oversee a reporting program. That program could document parents’ expenditures as they occur. Additionally, the department is required to post on its website information about all purchases and expenditures in a way that does not violate the privacy of students and families.

Who can fill out my application?

Parents fill out the ESA applications, or they can get help from a third party, such as a private school that they want to attend or a non-profit organization.

Does the ESA program dictate curriculum? 

No. The measure specifically prohibits state officials from restricting the type of curriculum choices parents make for their children. Critics of ESA expansion contend that parents could teach their children anything they want and the state could not intervene.


The Republic’s political team on April 11, 2017, talks about “zombie” health care reform in Congress, and the expansion of the school voucher program headed by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Will ESA students have to take the same types of tests that public-school students take? 

Yes and no. ESA students in grades 3 through 12 will be required to take any of the following exams: any nationally standardized norm-referenced achievement test, an advanced-placement test that assesses reading and mathematics, and the statewide assessment or any test related to college or university admissions that assesses reading and mathematics. The results of the tests would be reported to the parent.

What academic reporting is required?

Under the ESA expansion measure, private schools that give certain types of standardized tests and have more than 50 ESA students must publish aggregated results of the tests for the entire school, not just the results of the ESA students. There are few private schools that will meet both requirements. The state does not oversee private schools, and those schools are not required to report student achievement to the Department of Education, unlike public schools.

If an ESA recipient wants to leave private school, will the state pay for private-school tuition and the cost to return to public school?

Students can always return to public school. Starting in January 2018, ESA money will be deposited into the ESA accounts every 30 days instead of quarterly, which is intended to make it easier for the state to cut off funding if there is suspected fraud, or if students return to public school.

Does the new ESA program create an incentive for students to first enroll in charter schools then leave in order to get higher funding to attend a private school? 

It’s true that children leaving charter schools receive more ESA money — an estimated $1,800 each year — compared with students leaving district schools. For an elementary-school student, switching to a charter school before enrolling in the ESA program could result in an extra $12,000 to $23,000 more over the course of the child’s education.

But state officials cast doubt on the notion that large numbers of families will switch to charter schools from public schools to capture greater funding for private schools. A student would have to attend a charter school for 100 days before qualifying for higher ESA funding, and officials said jumping from school to school would be too disruptive for most families.

However, critics say families with children in elementary school would have a powerful incentive to switch from public schools to charter schools: They could boost their child’s ESA haul by $12,000 to $23,000 over the years from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Sources: Staffers from the Arizona House of Representatives and the Arizona Senate, Arizona Department of Education officials, Senate Bill 1431, Republic research.


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