By Daniel Stefanski |
It’s been just over a month since new Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, was sworn into office, and his hire to run the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program has been delivering significant results for Arizona families.
Christine Accurso, the new ESA Executive Director, has been a longtime pro-life and school choice advocate in the East Valley. Her family has benefited from the ESA program for years – well before the Arizona Legislature expanded its scope in 2022. After the bill was signed into law by former-Governor Doug Ducey, Accurso singlehandedly led a grassroots army of moms and dads from around Arizona to defeat a campaign meant to refer ESA expansion to the ballot and delay the implementation of school choice and freedom for tens of thousands of children in our state.
Since coming on with the Arizona Department of Education, Accurso has been hard at work to save the expanded ESA program a second time, bringing staffing up to the levels intended by the legislature, handling the huge backlog of funding and reimbursement requests, vetting and approving new applications for the program, and ensuring that parents are receiving timely and relevant information from her office.
To that end, Accurso has been extremely diligent in sending out weekly emails to account holders, explaining what her program is working on, clarifying any previous misconceptions about ESAs, and giving updates on the number of students benefiting from school choice in Arizona. Her first email, sent January 3 (which was her inaugural day leading the program), alerted parents and guardians that there were 45,170 students receiving an ESA. In her email this week, that number was up to 46,971 – and Accurso briefed readers that the program is “receiving a minimum of 150 new applications a day.”
Accurso’s latest email also gave an update on her processing que, which is very helpful for account holders to realize the reasons behind some delays in payment processing or approval of desired resources for students. The Marketplace has a backlog of 4,578; Direct Pay of 4,032; Reimbursements of 24,409; and pre-paid debit cards of 63,125 – and there are 4,000 orders coming in each day to be processed. These numbers are significantly down from the original backlog Accurso inherited from the previous administration (and shared in her January 13 email), which was 171,575 orders.
The ESA Executive Director has also been planning and executing the formation of a parent advisory committee – an action she forecasted in her January 13 email to account holders. Accurso announced in her January 25 email that the application process for this committee was open – with 15 to 30 members selected to serve in a volunteer capacity. There were 140 applications received by the ESA Program for this committee, per Accurso’s February 8 email, and she informed interested readers that “we will be finalizing the candidates and communicating with them soon.”
The February 8 email to account holders was lengthy, which Accurso apologized for, but it was filled with necessary information. Accurso explained that she had “spent her first month as the executive director adjusting our office’s approach to everything in the ESA program to align with the state law.” She clarified the law and requirements for an “individual vs facility/business offering tutoring or teaching services,” and she gave an update on “accessing your ESA funds.” She gave a lot of information on the four ways account holders could access their ESA funds, including some new directives on using the pre-paid debit card. Accurso warned that her office “does plan to cancel the use of debit cards for all accounts that have not submitted the appropriate receipts by the (required) deadline or have purchased unallowable items with the card (For example: Chevron, Chick-Fil-A, Taco Bell and Dillard’s).”
Accurso realizes that one of the deadliest attacks toward ESA programs is the lack of oversight by those entrusted to distribute and steward the funds, and the propensity of some account holders to misuse funds that have been earmarked for specific educational purposes – whether intentionally or unintentionally. This is why she appears to be laser focused on bringing the Arizona ESA program into conformity with the law and the original intent of the legislature. Her weekly updates will continue to provide much-needed guiderails for parents and guardians as the program moves forward under the watchful eyes of Superintendent Horne.
Daniel Stefanski is a reporter for AZ Free News. You can send him news tips using this link.