Parents Furious as Special Interests, Unethical Conduct Imperil ESA Program

Press Release | Arizona Coalition of Parents for Equal Student Access (AZCP.ESA)

March 18, 2023 (PHOENIX) — Parents across Arizona who use the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to educate their children were optimistic when Tom Horne (R) was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) in November 2022. Even some Democrats with children who receive ESAs as students with disabilities voted for the Republican, who ran on a school choice platform. Parents were relieved when Horne defeated predecessor Kathy Hoffman (D), who was critical of the school vouchers and expansion efforts during her tenure.

Then SPI Horne made a startling decision and appointed Christine Accurso, an ESA parent since at least 2019, as the next executive director. Many account holders in contract with the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) for the scholarship were enthusiastic and assumed Accurso understood their needs. Some parents trusted the choice, while others were concerned it would backfire.

Christine Accurso claims her Christian mission is to serve and empower parents. She even displays the “Empower Parents” motto in the ESA office at the ADE administration building in downtown Phoenix. But ESA account holders confess feeling more abused than empowered.

Parents have experienced the ESA program descend into chaos soon after the January 2023 administration change. They argue Accurso’s political appointment was ill-advised and claim that she is unfit to manage the complex education program. Parents condemn the citizen-activist for reinterpreting state and federal laws for the more than decade-old scholarship that first became available in 2011 for students with disabilities. Some parents have even demanded she be fired.

The school choice administrator claims in e-mails to ESA account holders that she is aligning the program “with the law.” But confidential sources say Christine Accurso was hand-picked by American Federation for Children (AFC), a religious conservative school privatization effort, to implement their education freedom agenda for Arizona as executive director of the ESA program.

The Arizona Department of Education has 50,000 contracts for scholarships that use state education dollars and federal IDEA funds. Steve Smith, Arizona state director for AFC, wants to at least double that number to 100,000 ESAs in 2023. The former Arizona state Senator (2010-2018) served on the Senate Education Committee (2011-2018) and sponsored the 2011 legislation which created the ESA program.

Christine Accurso was admonished during the Arizona State Board of Education (SBE) public meeting on February 27, 2023 for ignoring precedents and enacting abrupt policy changes during her less than two months on the job.

The Board listened for several hours as ESA stakeholders crammed concerns about the school choice program and its director into 2-minute verbal statements. The emotional appeals echoed the unprecedented response the Board received the previous week from program users across Arizona who submitted hundreds of pages of written comments. Public commenters sounded more like battle-scarred warriors than scholarship overseers, special education service providers and funded students as they recounted personal experiences of programmatic abuse under Accurso.

SBE President Dr. Daniel P. Corr, who has served on the Board for more than 6 years, told Accurso, these parents “have been yo-yoed back and forth with different rules, regulations, procedures, handbooks, administrations…” Corr added, “Their life is with their children and we owe them that stability. I would just ask that we not make a false dichotomy between oversight and accountability and a system that is friendly to parents. It’s not an either or, it has to be this and that. We have to be accountable and accommodative to parents.”

The Board reminded Accurso that she was required to develop the ESA handbook in consultation with parents of children on the program (A.A.C. R7-2-1503.1). Accurso complied, technically.

Accurso e-mailed ESA account holders on March 3, 2023 and offered parents an anonymous survey with extensive questions about the program handbook with responses due by 12pm March 7, 2023. Many parents found the request last-minute and the deadline unrealistic, but 509 parents (about 1%) responded. Documents submitted to SBE for the March 20, 2023 public meeting reveal that Accurso has rejected the 1,500 pages of survey responses from parents and recommended “that the State Board approve the ESA Handbook for the 2023-2024 school year.”

But Accurso, who receives $132,000 annual compensation from the state of Arizona to manage the school choice program, failed to mention in the timeline submitted to SBE that she accepted changes to the ESA Parent Handbook from Esly Montenegro, AFC’s Arizona implementation director. Confidential sources indicate Montenegro created a shared Google document of the ESA Parent Handbook on February 27, 2023 and directed Accurso to make substantial changes.

Many ESA account holders allege the Arizona Department of Education has violated their contracts with Accurso at the helm and worry the state may also be misappropriating federal funds intended for special education purposes. Parents have reported concerns to multiple state and federal agencies. AZCP.ESA has been informed that investigations are underway and details cannot be released at this time.

Transmitted on behalf of Arizona Coalition of Parents for Equal Student Access (AZCP.ESA) 

Arizona Coalition of Parents for Equal Student Access (AZCP.ESA) is an advocacy-driven effort that prioritizes individuals (over agendas). AZCP.ESA works to ensure Arizona parents and their eligible students have timely access to scholarship funds, individualized education options, reasonable accommodations and adaptive equipment. 

Contact Arizona Coalition of Parents for Equal Student Access 
Twitter: @azcpesa

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