A state program that provides parents with funds to use toward education has grown more than three-fold since it began.

State lawmakers created the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, also called the education savings account program, in spring 2011. During the first disbursement in fall 2011, 75 accounts were approved.

Currently, there are 302 active accounts. Applications for the school year will be available Dec. 28, with an enrollment period beginning in January. The deadline will be 3 p.m. on May 1.

Arizona lawmakers originally approved the voucher-like program for students who qualify for special education services (through an individual education plan or 504 plan) in areas such as autism, language delays or visual impairment, and who have attended a public school in the previous school year for at least 100 days. Earlier this year, lawmakers added students attending a failing school, children of active military personnel and children in the state foster-care system.

Because the law was not in effect by the deadline for this year’s program, they were not able to apply. But they will qualify for next school year.

Applicants who are approved and accept the accounts receive 90 percent of the money a public school would have received had the student enrolled there. Students must then leave their public district or charter school. Funds can be used to pay tuition at a private school, pay fees for education therapies, or used on a small list of other education services or materials.

On average, Arizona public schools receive between $5,000 and $6,000 per student, though special education students are funded more because of the services they require.

Proponents say the savings accounts will help save tax dollars, since they would not be enrolled in a public school and they do not receive 100 percent of the funding.

This fall, the average award was $15,190.88, according to the state Department of Education. The highest award was $28,328.77. The lowest award was $2,185.

The first year of disbursements, the average was $13,800.

Families that accept the accounts must file expense reports on time or risk being removed from the program. According to the state, 51 different private schools in Arizona have at least one child enrolled who is receiving an Education Savings Account.

A new Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Handbook is being created.

For information, see www.azed.gov/esa/.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or mreese@evtrib.com

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