Empowerment Scholarship Accounts
Arizona allows parents of children with disabilities to set up Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs. These ESAs are funded with a portion of the state education funds earmarked for your child.
Once funded, parents can use the money in the accounts to pay for tuition and other services for their child at private schools.
Students who may qualify include children with disabilities whether they are receiving special education and related services as part of an Individualized Education Program, or IEP or accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act - so called “504 plans.”
In order to qualify, the student with a disability must have been enrolled in a public school or been receiving a need based scholarship and the parents must agree to remove the child from public school.
The agreements require the parents to agree that the school district has no obligation to educate the student for the term of the agreement. The agreements are valid for one school year.
Any parent considering applying for an Empowerment Scholarship Account should consider contacting an attorney to review your options and advise you of the rights you may be giving up.
Typically a family will pursue the ESA option because they are dissatisfied with the services provided by the school district. Pursuing an ESA does not mean that you waive the right to pursue a claim against the school district for prior violations. A parent of a student with disabilities can still bring a due process complaint or a state complaint against the school district for IDEA violations that happened while the student was enrolled in the school district.
So if a student is attending a private school using ESA funds for the 2014-2015 school year, you can still file a due process complaint against the school district for the failure to provide a free appropriate public education or FAPE in the 2013-2014 school year or perhaps earlier.
Is an ESA right for your child?
With an Empowerment Scholarship Account, 90% of the amount allocated to your child by the State Department of Education according to a complex formula based on the specific type of disability, your child's age, and the district in which your child goes to school. The funding under an ESA varies considerably with some students receiving only about $5,000.00 up to almost $25,000.
No Federal funds under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are included in these accounts. (No Federal funds are available for students only receiving a 504 plan and not an IEP)
More importantly, many of the Federal protections that the IDEA provides including and IEP, a right to a free appropriate public education or FAPE as well as protections with disciplinary actions will either have to be given up or severely limited as private schools are not bound by the terms of the IDEA.
If you are considering applying for an ESA, please contact an attorney to discuss the potential benefits and problems with ESAs so you can make an informed decision.
Please contact our office if you have questions about this new law to help you make the right choice. Much like not all programs a school offers will work for your child, an ESA will not necessarily be the best option for all children with disabilities.