UPDATED to reflect 2018 election results.
A friend recently shared with an AFHE board member that they have a hard choice to make about where to live now that her husband has accepted a job in another state. In the state where the job is located there is a high level of homeschool regulation and oversight by the school districts, so the family is contemplating living about an hour away in order to be across a state line in a more homeschool-friendly environment. They are having to consider the value of continuing their homeschool journey in an atmosphere of liberty and might have to pay a high cost to do so.
Living in Arizona means that we are able to choose from a wide variety of positive education options for our children. At AFHE we often hear from homeschool families who have arrived here from other states and are pleasantly surprised by the abundance of homeschool freedom we enjoy. In a state as diverse and broad as ours—geographically, ethnically, and politically, with many military families and recent arrivals from other states—it is indeed a great benefit to have these options and the opportunity to choose the method, setting, and lifestyle that will best serve our children’s educational needs.
Bringing Clarity to an Often-Confusing Topic
As parents investigate the possibility of homeschooling and learn about Arizona’s education options, one of the questions we are regularly asked is about homeschooling with an ESA. We hope the following information aids in bringing clarity for an often-confusing topic.
The Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) is a unique education option in Arizona that was established in 2011. To apply for the ESA, a student must be enrolled in a public school for 100 days and meet the program’s eligibility requirements. With a few narrow exceptions, only public school students are eligible to apply. (Exceptions exist for siblings of students who already have an ESA and a couple of other special circumstances). Once approved, the family may access up to 90% of state funding that would have been allocated for that student in a public school.
Parents of ESA contract students have two choices once they are approved for the program: they can enroll their child in a private school – or – they can teach their child at home and use the ESA funds for tutors, therapies, service providers for children with special needs, some curriculum, and other authorized expenditures. At last report, approximately 85% of the ESA population is enrolled in a private school and 15% of ESA contract students are taught at home.
The ESA is separate from homeschooling, which is another legally defined education option in our state. Since ESA students taught at home have a very similar day-to-day experience as homeschooled students, there is often confusion about the distinction between the two student classifications.
Arizona law [ARS §15-2402 (B)(5)] articulates that ESA students taught at home do not file an Affidavit of Intent to Homeschool; instead, they enter into a contract with the state on a yearly basis, which requires quarterly reports of eligible expenditures. In addition, ESA contract students do not fall under the protection of the homeschool statute or meet the legal definition of a homeschooled student.
Unique Protections for Homeschoolers
Homeschoolers in Arizona enjoy some unique protections and privileges including the opportunity to try out for interscholastic activities (e.g. sports) at the local public school, statutory exemption from state-mandated standardized testing, no reporting requirements, and limited exposure to data collection/information gathering by the school district, County, or State. In addition, there is no approval or certification required of homeschooling parents, unlike tutors and services providers who are paid using ESA funds.
As a taxpayer-funded option, the ESA has a greater level of oversight including accountability for how ESA funds are spent and restrictions surrounding what they can be used for. It is worth noting that there are annual calls for more stringent regulation and testing requirements.
Homeschooling is parent-led and privately funded. It is a student classification defined in state statute as “nonpublic instruction provided primarily by the parent or guardian or nonpublic instruction provided in the child’s home.” When a family elects to homeschool, they are taking full responsibility for their child’s education including the financial obligation.
Can I Homeschool with an ESA?
When asked if one can “homeschool with ESA,” the simple answer is no. Because our state has a distinct education status called homeschooling with its own legal definition, one cannot homeschool with an ESA. However, a parent can indeed teach their child at home with an ESA. The ESA is an option that can be very rewarding and beneficial to the families that utilize it.
Homeschooling is a distinct student classification in our state that is not the same as other at-home education options such as the ESA and virtual charter schools. Articulating this fact does not mean that AFHE is critical of parents for choosing these or other paths for educating their children.
By sharing data about homeschooling and the other education options in Arizona, it is our desire for parents to have enough information to aid in making the best decision for their own family. Each education option in our state has its own unique benefits, requirements, responsibilities, and restrictions.
Why Does This Distinction Matter?
You might wonder why maintaining a clear distinction between homeschooling and taxpayer-funded at-home education options such as the ESA and virtual charter schools is important.
As evidenced by increased legislation popping up in various states, there is a significant push nationwide to increase regulation for homeschoolers. AFHE has worked hard since its inception in the early 1980s to remove burdensome regulations that did exist for homeschooling families here in our state. In order to maintain that hard-fought freedom, it is crucial to keep homeschooling separate from taxpayer funds.
What the State funds it must oversee and regulate. This is wise stewardship of our taxpayer dollars—however, with government money comes government strings. One key element that has been a hallmark of Arizona homeschooling for more than three decades is that what we value most is our freedom.
AFHE Supports Choice of Education Options
The AFHE Board of Directors fully support parents in choosing whichever education option best meets their children’s needs, including the ESA, which has been a great help—in particular for families who have children with special needs requiring expensive therapies. We are incredibly blessed to live in a state with so many options from which to choose.
We recognize that there are a number of families who are homeschooling one or more of their children and utilizing the ESA for another child or several. Even though the ESA is a separate student classification from homeschooling, parents using the ESA at-home option can benefit from a number of resources AFHE offers. ESA families are welcome at the AFHE Convention and other events that we host and are invited to subscribe to our email list to receive information about community events, resources, and more. In addition, we include ESA contract students taught at home in our senior high graduation ceremony.
Our organization has a specific mission, which we have faithfully carried out for 36 years so far. That mission is to encourage and equip families who have chosen parent-led, privately funded homeschooling in accordance with Arizona Revised Statutes and to protect homeschool freedom. Arizona has one of the best homeschool laws in the nation, in large part, because of the vigilance and active involvement of AFHE in our community statewide and at the State Capitol.
It is an honor and great joy to serve Arizona homeschool families—inspiring, promoting, and preserving homeschooling in our great state.
What’s Most Important
The most important thing we as parents have in common, regardless of where or how education is received, is a love for our children and a desire to see them grow, learn, and thrive—and that is something worth celebrating. Whichever education option you choose for your child, we pray for great success.