Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Offer Arizona Parents Finances, Flexibility to Home Educate

When Michael and Jenny Clark discovered that two of their eldest children had dysgraphia and were dyslexic, they were unsuccessful in finding intensive remediation programs in their local public school, which their sons Scout and Brooks needed to learn how to read.

“I was shocked because we live in one of the best school districts in Arizona,” Ms. Clark said in an interview.

Through a variety of random encounters, the mother of five subsequently learned about the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program and promptly applied. Her two sons, ages 9 and 11, qualified, and now Clark is entrusted with $12,000, which she uses to home educate them both.

An ESA, also known as an Education Savings Account, provides parents with a portion of public funds for private school tuition, tutoring services, textbooks, specialized teachers, therapists, and other educational resources.

“My kids actually had qualified for an ESA years earlier because of their speech delays, but no one told me about it,” Clark said.

Clark’s two sons are among the 6,310 students being educated with ESAs outside of Arizona public schools, which cost some $82 million in 2021, according to media reports.

“Once we got our kids onto ESA, we were able to use those funds to buy the very specific curriculum they needed,” she said. “We were also able to get them speech therapy and to hire tutors so they could learn to read. They go to a really great therapist for a variety of different things, including their handwriting disability.”

Arizona’s $82 million is a cost that, if ESAs take hold in other states, experts allege could cumulatively cripple public schools financially nationwide over time.

“I predict less enrollment in public schools, which will have an impact because all the fixed costs of utilities, maintenance, payroll, and insurance remain in place, but you have fewer kids enrolled in public school to help foot the bill,” said Lee Jenkins, author of the book “How to Create a Perfect School.”

Currently, there are only six states that have ESA programs, according to the Education Commission of the States. They include Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

“In the beginning, it might be good for kids enrolled in public schools because there will be fewer kids per class, but in the long run, as more parents opt to home educate their kids with ESAs, it won’t be a positive, necessarily, for the public schools,” Jenkins told American Essence. “It could be a positive for education as a whole if there’s more parents who are happy with their kids’ learning through ESAs.”

K–12 public schools spend $612.7 billion, or $12,612 per pupil per year, according to Education Data statistics, with the federal government providing 7.7 percent of funding and the state and local governments providing 46.7 percent and 45.6 percent of public education funds, respectively.

“That money belongs to each student, and we would argue that the funding should follow the child, just like a backpack, but in Arizona, not all of the money allocated follows an ESA child,” Clark said in an interview. “Some of the money is left behind for the public school, and in Arizona, the per-pupil funding is more than $10,000 but ESAs only pay out around $6,000 per student.”

Without access to Arizona’s ESA funding, Kayla Svedin says there’d be no way she could afford to home educate her three children on her husband’s teacher salary.

“I pay for my younger two who are in kindergarten and preschool to attend a private in-home Montessori school, and my oldest is a 9-year-old in fourth grade who studies with another fourth-grader three days a week,” Svedin said. “Our daughters are very similar in their learning styles, and with our ESA monies, the other parent and I hired a private instructor to teach them at their house. So I drop my daughter off.”

In order to tap into ESA money, children must qualify under one of ten categories, which include adopted from foster care, having special needs, or having a learning disability. Once a parent completes the application and the child is approved, however, Svedin says the parent’s work has just begun.

“ESAs are highly audited and highly accountable,” she said. “I have to prove what I’m buying every single quarter, and I have to upload credentials, receipts, and invoices for every purchase.”

Svedin, a stay-at-home mom, co-founded a local community nonprofit with three other ESA mothers, called Empowered Arizona Families, to help others secure ESA funding for home education.

“You have to submit a Multidisciplinary Evaluation Team (MET) report or an Individualized Education Program (IEP) evaluation or a 405 Education Plan to the Arizona Department of Education with your application, and don’t let any bumps in the road stop you,” she said. “If you are denied, you can appeal.”

Juliette Fairley is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Born in Chateauroux, France, and raised outside of Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Juliette is a well-adjusted military brat who now lives in Manhattan. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TheStreet, Time magazine, the Chicago City Wire, the Austin-American Statesman, and many other publications across the country.