Arizona’s school vouchers program director working to address parent concerns

Mar 20, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 7:40 am

Christine Accurso...

Christine Accurso, executive director of Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Account program. (KTAR News Photo/Griselda Zetino)

(KTAR News Photo/Griselda Zetino)

PHOENIX — After her family benefited from Arizona’s school vouchers program for years, Christine Accurso is now working to ensure it works properly for other parents as the program’s new executive director.

“We want to make sure that this program aligns to the law but is totally flexible for parents to be able to use in all the aspects of education that they are seeking for their kids,” Accurso said.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program allows taxpayer dollars that would’ve gone to the K-12 public school system and instead be used for private school tuition, homeschool, tutoring and other educational expenses.

It reached 50,000 participants on Friday, according to the Arizona Department of Education, which administers the program. That’s compared to roughly 12,100 before all Arizona K-12 students became eligible last year under the universal expansion.

Accurso told KTAR News 92.3 FM her office is looking into reports that ESA funds were being used to purchase things like large trampolines, stoves and SeaWorld tickets.

“We’re cracking down to make sure that this is in line with the law and that the funds are being used individually for the children,” she said.

Her office is also working to address concerns parents voiced during stakeholder meetings recently, including questions about ClassWallet, the vendor ADE contracted to administer ESA funds into virtual accounts.

Some parents said the amount of money in their accounts did not match what they were supposed to receive. Others shared they saw funds disappear from their accounts.

Accurso said she started hearing those same reports. She encourages parents to email her office “so that we can look at those directly with them or they can contact ClassWallet.”

KTAR News 92.3FM reached out to ClassWallet for comment but has not heard back.

Earlier this month, ADE announced a request for proposal for other providers is being prepared. The department expects to have a new vendor under contract near the end of May.

Parents have also complained about long wait times to get reimbursed for educational expenses they made using debit cards, some dating back several months.

Accurso explained the previous administration left more than 171,500 requests for payments that had not been processed.

“We are trying to catch up as quickly as possible,” Accurso said.

Staffing has been a big challenge as well. She said she started out with 17 staff members, but she’s working to get that number to 43 before the next enrollment period that begins April 17.

“We are expecting and trying brace ourselves for a lot of applicants,” she said.

Accurso added she expects a lot of those new applications to be from students currently enrolled in public schools.

ADE reported late last year that about 75% of applicants under the universal expansion did not have a history of attending an Arizona public school.

Supporters of the ESA program explained that was because the application was made available after the school year had started, and parents didn’t want to have their kids switch schools.

Accurso said she heard from hundreds of parents in this situation last year. She said the latest numbers show about half of students under the universal ESA expansion have a history of attending an Arizona public school.

“I think the numbers are changing and we’ll see another change when the new enrollment period begins,” Accurso said.

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Arizona’s school vouchers program director working to address parent concerns