Aug 31, 2022 - Politics

Parents quick to seek universal ESAs, but they may need a backup plan

Illustration of a paper cut family, with the child in the middle made of a dollar bill.
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Parents submitted more than 6,000 applications in the past two weeks for their newly eligible children to receive Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) according to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE).

Catch up fast: Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law in July that expanded the program to all students.

  • It has historically been open only to specific groups, such as students with disabilities, kids who attend failing schools, Native Americans who live on reservations or children whose siblings participate in the program.

Why it matters: Under the ESA program, parents who pull their children from public schools receive money to spend on private school tuition, tutoring and educational materials.

  • The Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimated in June that there were at least 47,000 private school students and about 35,000 homeschooled students who would become eligible under the law for ESAs.

By the numbers: Since Aug. 16, when the ADE opened applications for universal ESAs, it has received 6,494 applications for students who wouldn't have previously qualified for the program, the department announced on Twitter Tuesday.

  • About 75% of those students were not previously enrolled in a public school, which was a requirement for eligibility prior to the universal expansion law, the ADE tweeted.
  • The ADE also received 279 applications for students who met the preexisting criteria.
  • There are currently 12,127 students participating in the program, the department tells Axios.

Yes, but: ESA opponents are collecting signatures to refer the law to the ballot, which would put universal expansion on hold until voters approve it.

  • So parents who are counting on using the vouchers for their kids should probably have backup plans.

Of note: It's too late to put the law on the ballot for this year's general election, so if Save Our Schools Arizona succeeds in collecting enough signatures, voters won't have a chance to weigh in until November 2024.

  • If enough signatures aren't collected, the expansion law will go into effect on Sept. 24.

Save Our Schools spokesperson Beth Lewis wouldn't say how many signatures the campaign has collected so far, but she tells Axios that it's on pace to collect the nearly 119,000 they need.

  • "This obviously will light a fire for people who kind of maybe thought, 'Oh, it's not going to be that bad,'" Lewis said of the ADE's announcement on ESA enrollment.
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