Photo: Stacey Brown, a parent of two children who use the voucher program, says ESAs empower “parents to make educational decisions that best fits their child’s life.” Photo taken on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Photo by Emily Mai/Cronkite News)
Parents, children and educators on Wednesday marched to the state Capitol to support an education voucher program that Gov. Katie Hobbs has said she wants to dismantle.
Janelle Wood, founder and chief executive of the Black Mothers Forum, said she organized the rally to show support for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs. The state-funded program helps to lift children living in lower-income households, she said.
“If we want education to be their true pathway out of poverty, we must provide it in the different modes that is needed so that children can get the education they need,” Wood said. “It gives parents the opportunity and the funding to pay for the services that they’re not able to receive in the traditional public school setting.”
She spoke as dozens of marchers trudged around the Capitol complex, holding aloft signs such as “My Child, My Choice,” and chanting, “ESA is here to stay.”
ESAs allow parents to receive up to $7,000 annually in state money for a child in grades K-12, whether for homeschooling, disability help or other programs. Supporters at the rally said it puts parents at the forefront of their children’s education.
Critics, such as Hobbs, said it siphons money from public schools to private ones. Her proposed state budget does not allocate funds for the ESAs, although it is unclear if the governor has the power to financially hobble the program.
Wood said children of all races, ethnicities and incomes need the program.
“Not only white parents want this, but black, brown, Indigenous parents need this type of program,” she said.
Parents also can use the money for a child who needs therapy or help with a disability.
Charlotte Lawrence receives ESA funds for two of her children.
Her daughter, Emma Gibford, 9, carried a sign that started with the words “I am a stroke survivor with learning disabilities.” The ESA money pays for a tutor to help with learning disabilities after her daughter suffered a “massive stroke” at birth, Lawrence said.
“One-on-one tutoring is especially better for her instead of a big classroom setting,” Lawrence said.
Another mother, Stacey Brown, spoke at the rally for equal access to education so she can homeschool her children. She said they are thriving, exceeding their grade levels.
“In just a few short months, the ESA program has given her the ability to be able to succeed in math that is probably going to potentially set her up for life in the future with some sort of math degree,” Brown said of her kindergartner, who is doing second-grade math.
Brown said every parent knows their child’s strengths and weaknesses, which allows parents to pick the education that best fits their child’s learning style.
Tajiri Freedom, principal of New Gains Academy in Glendale, showed support for the ESA program for the 10 children at her “microschool” to receive the education parents want to see. New Gains Academy offers curriculum opportunities, such as a performing arts program, for children in fifth through eighth grades to learn in a small setting, and at the pace each child needs.
“This is what we’re all here for – to give everybody the right to choose,” Freedom said. “Children should be able to go to schools where they have programs that make them happy, that they enjoy being a part of, and they wouldn’t be able to do that without ESA programs.”