In the past few years, the education freedom movement succeeded in passing a slew of robust school choice bills into law. But that’s only the first step. Once they’re enacted, it’s vital to ensure the effective implementation of school choice policies.
Multiple states have teams busy at work implementing universal school choice policies, and administrators must learn from both program successes and missteps. And so, a series of missteps from a former program director in Arizona deserve scrutiny by administrators in other states.
After the Arizona Legislature passed an expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts last year, providing universal access to all Arizona families by allotting about $7,000 per year per child for chosen educational services, many were excited at the prospect of breaking free of the bureaucratic mediocrity found all too often in public schools.
Following the election of Republican Tom Horne as the state’s superintendent of public instruction in November, families cheered—hoping that a better director of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program would be appointed.
Horne wanted an ESA supporter to manage the program, so he appointed Christine Accurso, an activist who had led the campaign to protect universal expansion of access to Arizona’s version of education savings accounts from a ballot initiative that sought to overturn it.
Unfortunately, Accurso didn’t prove up to the task. In the ensuing months, she frequently made changes to how the ESA program operated, nearly always making it harder for parents to use their accounts. Parents grew increasingly upset with seemingly arbitrary policy changes and the ever-growing backlog of reimbursements for expenses.
From obstructing and preventing parents’ access to the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program to allegedly violating the privacy of hundreds of Arizona families, Accurso guaranteed that few would mourn her eventual resignation.
As tens of thousands began applying for Arizona’s ESA program in late 2022 and early 2023, Accurso hit the brakes via numerous policy changes that, in the name of “accountability,” reduced accessibility and usability for parents.
One of her more unpopular decisions was to halt the issuing of “ESA debit cards,” which allowed families to spend money directly on education expenses, instead directing families new to the program to use the online ClassWallet portal.
However, not every eligible education vendor was accessible via the ClassWallet portal, especially as some vendors had complained about not being paid for their services for weeks or longer due to the Arizona Department of Education’s backlog of expense reviews. This posed a particular challenge to families of students with special needs, who were more likely to use services that weren’t yet in the portal.
Accurso blamed her refusal to issue new ESA debit cards to new program applicants on several shifting “obstacles.”
In a March email, she argued that allowing parents direct access to their funds would be “tax dollars immediately spent without accountability,” even though ESA parents had to submit all receipts for review before the next quarterly disbursement.
A 2018 report by Arizona’s auditor general, however, found that misspending via ESA debit cards amounted to less than 1% of total ESA spending, although it recommended several upgrades in system administration to reduce misspending.
A more recent audit concluded that “concerns with debit card administration have largely been addressed.” Indeed, the rate of improper payments to unapproved merchants had been reduced to just 0.001%.
In an April email, Accurso said ESA debit cards were being distributed, albeit on an individual basis rather than as a blanket policy as in previous administrations. But she said her office had lagged due to “the massive backlog of pre-paid card transactions” aided by ClassWallet, a third-party vendor that she had pushed the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts office to use.
That backlog, however, to a great extent actually was due to Accurso’s own decision to manually review every single ESA transaction rather than to adopt a risk-based review process that approved routine transactions, with greater scrutiny applied only where warranted. Arizona’s auditor general recommended such a risk-based review years ago.
In two public meetings early this year, Accurso’s office said ESA debit cards couldn’t be issued based on a fear of “auditing our office.” The auditor general, however, had given previous administrations high marks for oversight of the debit cards.
Accurso also routinely changed the qualifications for what did and didn’t qualify for ESA funds. Several emails obtained by The Daily Signal show that Accurso consistently found excuses for not covering educational expenses that qualified for funding under previous Arizona Department of Education administrations and in other states with education savings accounts.
As 23 separate emails from parents sent to Arizona’s ESA office indicate, page 24 of the Education Department’s “Parent Handbook” lists specific categories of educational expenses that qualify for ESA prepayment or reimbursement. This list includes testing for learning disabilities, school supplies, classroom technology, and museum and educational center admission fees clearly qualified as expenses under the prior administration.
But Accurso claimed that if she followed the same list of expenses that qualify, she would “be sanctioned by the auditor.” This lack of clarity created fear among families regarding how they could use their accounts.
Parents and other education officials asked Accurso to create a list to dictate what could be qualified as an educational expense. Accurso deflected by complaining that “it would be a very long list,” and said she would create such a list only if the Arizona State Board of Education ordered her to do so. Previous administrators, however, routinely had provided such information.
Parents Seek Help
Parent after parent pleaded with Arizona’s ESA office to do something, even as financial strains became unbearable.
According to emails such as the one below, and hundreds of verified social media posts, parents were forced to use high-interest credit cards, take out small loans, and even move out of state to find educational resources they had a legal right to receive directly from the state of Arizona.
Thousands of emails and social media posts went unanswered by the ESA office. Parents reported that calling the office directly would result only in their waiting the entire day on hold—only to leave a voicemail doomed to the void of bureaucratic neglect.
In a cringe-inducing bit of irony, Accurso accused the state’s prior Democratic administration of mismanaging Arizona’s ESA program in 2020, complaining to the Arizona Capitol Times that she had spent hours on the phone with the Education Department to no avail.
Vendors also were limited in participating in the Arizona ESA program because Accurso’s obsession with ClassWallet heavily restricted businesses from participating in Arizona’s school choice system. In an email sent to the Arizona State Board of Education, an education provider complained about Accurso’s decision to cut off the ESA debit cards:
Not allowing ClassWallet vendors to be paid via debit card severely limits [a] vendor’s ability to participate in this program … the ClassWallet Direct Pay option was delaying payment to vendors for months. No business or individual can be expected to work without pay for months at a time.
Accurso also reinterpreted state regulations to forbid families from using a School Tuition Organization scholarship—Arizona’s other private school choice option—in the same year as they used ESA funds, something prior administrations had allowed.
The statute forbids a student from using both programs concurrently, but a student could switch from one to the other whenever he or she wanted. This flexibility was most important for families of students who were diagnosed with learning disabilities during the school year, so that they could switch from the School Tuition Organization scholarship to the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, which gives significantly more funds to students with special needs.
Accurso’s unilateral rule change effectively prevents families of students who were diagnosed with a learning disability midyear from being able to access the funds to cover their services until the following school year. This needlessly delays access to appropriate special-needs instruction and therapies.
According to Accurso’s new April 2023 handbook, the Arizona Department of Education specifically threatens termination of ESA access (for at least a year) to any family that tries to withdraw a student from the other scholarship program and request ESA funds in the same year.
Accurso also may be responsible for a major data leak of ESA families’ information.
The leak resulted in any ESA parent with a ClassWallet account acquiring access to the “full names of students and parents, associated email addresses and phone numbers, home shipping addresses, the items purchased, the amount spent per order and the application type.”
On July 25, just hours after the Arizona Department of Homeland Security implicated either Accurso or Linda Rizzo, director of ESA operations, as responsible for the data breach, both women resigned.
Horne, the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction, later told the Arizona Capitol Times that it’s highly likely that Accurso was responsible for the leak because she had changed an administrator privilege in the ClassWallet system.
Horne, to his credit, accepted Accurso’s resignation and appointed a new program director who is more eager to solve than to create problems. The new administration has acted to engage meaningfully with program participants and supporters.
Accurso didn’t respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment or an interview, and apparently she hasn’t been interviewed by a journalist since her resignation.
So, what’s the lesson to be learned here? Are school choice programs such as education savings accounts doomed from the start?
No. Several states, including Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, and West Virginia have large-scale universal, or near-universal, access to ESA funds and do so efficiently.
School board officials in Arkansas, Indiana, and Florida told The Daily Signal that the turnaround for ESA appeals generally is fewer than five days—not several months.
I called the ESA offices in Arkansas, Iowa, and North Carolina—and in each case reached a person asking to look at “my account” and answer any questions in under 30 minutes.
Lawmakers structured Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program as a contract signed between families and the state. Families agree to educate their children in core academic subjects according to a set of allowable uses for ESAs set down in statute.
Participating families receive far less than the average overall funding for students in Arizona school districts, but far more flexibility in their use of funds. The creators of the program aimed for a liberal, flexible form of education to empower families and educators.
The families of special needs students, the original beneficiaries of Arizona’s ESA program, have the most complex needs and thus benefit the most from program flexibility. Making a mess of debit cards, complicating fund use, and putting up roadblocks to the transfer of students between programs had these long-time ESA parents visibly and publicly upset.
Program administrators inevitably must make judgment calls regarding statutory provisions. To maintain the confidence of participating families, however, these decisions should be made on a rational basis that is communicated to participants. Otherwise, families likely will interpret decisions as being arbitrary and capricious.
Horne shows every sign of being determined to correct Accurso’s missteps. The new interim ESA administrator, John Ward, served as the Education Department’s internal auditor and, according to local education policy wonks, has a reputation for competence.
ESA families are counting on Ward to clean up the mess left by his predecessor and to restore the program to its prior level of flexibility and customer service.
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