Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs)

What Parents of Students with Disabilities Need to Know

Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) are becoming a popular option to consider for parents of students with disabilities. ESAs offer parents the choice of how and where to educate their children by providing access to public funds the school district would receive for their child’s education. The actual amount of the scholarship is determined by the child’s primary eligibility category for special education. The ESA program also transfers the right to make all decisions about their child’s education to the parents. Parents of children with disabilities who select ESA agree to accept significant responsibility and accountability for their decisions, as they do in other areas of their child’s life.

For some parents, ESAs are a perfect fit; they have control over their child’s education and determine what they feel is needed. Parents need to carefully assess the ESA program, and their own ability to administer educational and financial requirements, before making their decision.

Parents may not always fully understand the role they will assume in coordinating and accounting for every aspect of their child’s education. For busy parents, the added responsibility of closely managing a child’s education can be overwhelming. According to the ASU Morrison Institute of Public Policy, of the 1,781 new applicants for the 2014-15 school year, more than half (58 percent) chose not to accept the funds or participate in the program. In addition, 25 percent of 761 students who participated in the ESA during the 2013-14 school year returned to public schools the following year.

Parents reported the difficulty of coordinating multiple services and the rigorous accounting requirements of the program as the reason for their return to public school. Parents must account for every expenditure and turn in receipts quarterly. Aiden Fleming, legislative liaison and ESA program manager for the Arizona Department of Education (ADE), equates the accounting requirements to “doing your taxes every three months.”

Parent Kelly Randall said, “The process was stressful for me. I worried that I had missed something on the paperwork that would jeopardize my son’s scholarship.” LaTasha Whitaker, whose daughter attends a different school, found the process simpler. She explained, “At my daughter’s school, the process is very smooth.” Whitaker also mentioned, “Other parents frequently ask for my assistance and I always refer them directly to ESA staff because each person’s situation is very individualized and they [ESA staff] are the people who have the answers.”

Parents like Whitaker and Randall, who are currently in the ESA program, advise newcomers to educate themselves thoroughly to understand the responsibilities they will be accepting before making a commitment. To assist parents, ADE has made available a parent handbook on the ADE website that describes all the details and restrictions of the program. ADE provides workshops and information sessions discussing eligibility, acceptance, approved use of funds, and reporting requirements.

While the business and administrative requirements deserve close attention, there are other important considerations for parents of students with disabilities to consider when deciding if the ESA program is right for them:

Parental Rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) By accepting an ESA agreement, parents release the school district (or charter holder) from the obligation to educate their child. The IDEA protections no longer apply, and parents give up some rights, such as:


  • a child’s right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE)
  • the requirement for schools to provide special education, and disability-related services designed to meet a student’s unique educational needs
  • the requirement for schools to prepare students for further education, employment, and independent living


Transportation is a disability-related service that is no longer provided when parents use ESA funds. Randall recalls, “The lack of transportation services was not an issue until a huge increase in enrollment at my son’s school required a move to a bigger location that is three times farther away. That was a major problem because I have two children in different schools and was unable to get them both to school on time. Luckily, Nathan is now able to use the shuttle bus option his school offers, which drops him off at a closer location.” Steve and Amy Dill traded in their car for a hybrid model to reduce the expense of a 40-mile round-trip commute to their son’s school. Dill explained, “Our car was only a couple years old, but that is a lot of driving.”

In private schools, there are no standardized test requirements to ensure academic progress and no state financial oversight. Private schools are not required to provide the same level of support or accommodations as public schools, and they are not required to admit students with disabilities. If parents enroll a student in a private school using ESA funds, the private school has no requirement to follow the student’s IEP. Parents lose dispute resolution options, such as filing a complaint or requesting mediation or due process. If they find their child’s education needs are not being met, their only recourse may be to withdraw their child from the school. Opting out of the ESA program and enrolling the student in public school restores the IDEA protections. When a student is placed in a private school as a result of an IEP team decision, the school is required to follow the IEP and the student is provided all the other protections under the IDEA. IEP Team private placements are made into schools approved by the ADE and typically provide specialized programs specifically for students with disabilities.

Least Restrictive Environment? The IDEA mandates that a student’s instruction be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) starting in a general education classroom. This ensures that children with a disability have equal access to the educational opportunities that all children enjoy. Removal from a general education classroom to a more restrictive setting, such as a private school, should only take place only when there are no available services and supports that could meet the student’s needs.

The ASU Morrison Institute information indicates that the majority (70 percent) of the parents who accept ESAs for students with disabilities choose to enroll them in either specialized private school programs, private tutoring, or homeschool. These options may unintentionally segregate students with disabilities.

The ESA agreement is a contract between parents and the AZ Department of Education After accepting the ESA funds and enrolling their child in a program, some parents may determine that the ESA program is not the right choice for them and decide they want their child to return to the public school system. Although the ESA contract is written for one year, it may be possible for parents to exit the program sooner. During a 10-day review period, ESA staff determines if all funds were expended appropriately. If so, the student may be allowed to return to public school. ADE/ESA staff makes early-exit decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Private schools or service providers may require the parents to sign a contract (separate from the ESA contract) for them to provide services for their child. If so, the family would be obligated to that contract according to their original agreement. It is up to the private school or provider to determine whether a parent can be released from their contract.

ESAs prioritize academics over vocational preparation ESAs do not provide reimbursement or cover expenses for vocational programs, training, and apprenticeships. For some students with disabilities, a vocational focus is an important aspect of their educational preparation for success after high school.

Funds from the ESA that are not expended in one year may be rolled over to the next. If students have unspent ESA funds after they graduate from high school, students may use those funds if they enroll in a post-secondary (college or university) academic program. However, if they enroll in a technical school, or vocational program, they must return the ESA funds to the state.

Is this going to work for my family? In making decisions about school choice, it is important that families are fully informed. The recommended first step is to talk with your child’s current IEP team. It’s one way to assess your child’s needs and to determine if applying for an ESA might be beneficial. If your child is enrolled at a public school or charter school with a special education placement, parents may request a meeting with their IEP team at any time. If requested in writing, the meeting should take place within 15 school days from the date the school receives the request.

For questions regarding the IDEA and parental rights in special education, call 602-242- 4366 or 800-237-3007 or email

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