Arizona attorney general warns parents that school voucher program is ‘buyer-beware situation’

Aug 4, 2023, 4:35 AM | Updated: 5:17 am

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes is warning families opting into the state’s rapidly growing u...

Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes says families should be aware of risks in using the state's ESA school voucher program. ( Photo/@AZAGMayes)

( Photo/@AZAGMayes)

PHOENIX – Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes is warning families opting into the state’s rapidly growing universal school voucher program that they are losing federal rights guaranteed to public school students.

Mayes also said she’s worried about the potential for fraud in the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program.

“My concern is that it has expanded so quickly and it has so few controls over it compared to public schools, and charter schools even, that it is open for abuse, and that’s what I’m trying to ward off here,” Mayes told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Mike Broomhead Show on Thursday.

How did Empowerment Scholarship Accounts change?

Last year, then-Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law that opened ESAs to all K-12 students, allowing taxpayer dollars to be used for private school tuition and other educational expenses.

Previously, the program was limited to children with special needs, students at low-performing schools, military families and residents of Native American reservations.

The program has increased from 6,000 to 60,000 students, Mayes said.

Why does Arizona’s attorney general think ESAs are risky?

Mayes said public school students are protected by federal anti-discrimination laws, but private schools students aren’t.

“I’m just worried that a lot of parents don’t know that when they use an ESA, they lose their federal rights not to be discriminated against, especially kids with disabilities,” she said.

Mayes also said private schools and other ESA-funded vendors aren’t required to provide educational records, another thing guaranteed under federal law.

“A lot of folks who might be seeking to use a voucher … might be doing so because their child has a special need, but they need to make sure that the school that they’ve chosen is not going to toss them out of that school midstream,” she said.

Mayes said she’d like to see the Legislature pass a law that prevents ESA vendors from discriminating against students based on learning disabilities, which is currently allowable.

Potential for ‘fly-by-night schools’ worries Mayes

Mayes also has concerns that the rapid school voucher expansion leaves the program susceptible to fraud.

“We’re talking about a billion dollars in taxpayer funds, and I’m worried about the potential for fly-by-night companies, fly-by-night schools coming into Arizona, vendors that are just out there to make a buck,” she said.

Mayes said that if a school fails to fulfill promises it makes, parents should contact her office about potential consumer fraud violations.

“I think there’s a reason to warn parents that this is, right now, given the state of the law, a buyer-beware situation,” she said. “Parents need to go in this eyes wide open, and they need to ask tough questions of these vendors.”

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Arizona attorney general warns parents that school voucher program is ‘buyer-beware situation’