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School Vouchers and Implications for Students with Disabilities


School Vouchers and ESA 

What is a school voucher?

School voucher programs give parents a choice about what school their child attends. School vouchers, along with education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarships, divert education tax dollars from public schools to private schools and services.  

By accepting a school voucher, parents remove their children from the public school system and take a percentage of the funding the public school would have received for educating that child. Parents can use the money toward non-public educational services for the child, such as tuition to attend a private school. 

School vouchers began in the United States in 1990 in the state of Wisconsin. Each state’s voucher program has different rules about which students are eligible for a voucher, how the voucher money can be spent, and the procedures that parents must follow. Arizona’s school voucher program began in 2011. 

What is the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program?

The Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program is Arizona’s school voucher program. ESA is administered by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). The ESA program allows parents of qualified students to use public monies to pay for educational services from private schools, education providers, and vendors.  

The ESA program operates as a contract between the parent and ADE. The parent (known as the “account holder”) will receive 90% of the state funding that a public school would have received for educating the account holder’s child. 

Who qualifies for ESA?

Previously, ESA was available only to students in certain categories (students with disabilities, students attending D or F rated schools, students whose parents were in the military, etc.). During the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers passed House Bill 2853, which expanded ESA eligibility to include to all students eligible to enroll in public K-12 school. This is known as the “universal ESA” program, and has different eligibility requirements from the previous ESA program.  

To learn more about how a student qualifies for ESA, visit the Arizona Department of Education’s ESA website. 

How do you apply for ESA?

You can apply for ESA online. You will be asked to upload copies of necessary documents, such as the student’s birth certificate. If you do not have a personal computer, you can use a public computer at a library or community center. Unfortunately, ESA does not accept paper applications. 

How long does it take for ADE to process ESA applications?

Applications can take up to 30 days to process (from the date a completed application is submitted) and the final determination is sent via email. You can check the status of your ESA application.

 What happens once an ESA application is approved?

If you choose to move forward with an ESA account, you will need to withdraw the student from public school and provide ESA with verification of that withdrawal. After verifying the student has been withdrawn from public school, ESA will issue a contract to the parent, and once the parent signs and returns the contract, the account is considered active and ready to receive funding. Funding is provided on a quarterly basis.  

ESA partners with an online platform called ClassWallet to administer ESA funds to contract holders. Once a student’s ESA contract is signed, it takes approximately 3 weeks to set up and fund the ClassWallet account. Once the account is set up, ESA will request quarterly funds from the Treasurer’s Office. Upon approval by the Treasurer’s Office, the treasury will release the funds to ClassWallet for disbursement. ClassWallet will send an email to ESA families letting them know funds are available. Account Holders can access their student’s ClassWallet account via the ESA Applicant Portal. ClassWallet offers four different ways to make purchases or payments on their platform: Marketplace, Pay Vendor, Debit Cards, and Reimbursement. More information, as well as helpful tutorials, are available from ClassWallet.

How much money will my child receive through ESA?

Through an ESA account, parents are provided with 90% of the amount of funding that would otherwise go to the child’s public school of enrollment. That amount will vary depending on the student, and may change from year to year depending on the state’s education budget.  

Arizona’s school funding formula assumes that providing an equivalent educational opportunity to all students will be more expensive in some situations and less expensive in others. To account for these differences, the amount of funding provided per student is weighted depending on various factors. For example, the formula assumes that educating high school students costs more than educating elementary school students, so a high school student is weighted more heavily than a K-8 student. Similarly, different disability categories are weighted differently. More significant disabilities are weighted more heavily, as the formula assumes it will be more expensive to provide a student with a more significant disability with equal access to education.  

The minimum amount a parent can expect to receive through ESA is around $3,000 per school year. The highest amount would be about $37,000 for a student with multiple significant disabilities (please note that funding at this level is very rare). There is a table with estimated amounts of ESA funding students with different disabilities might receive on the ADE website.

The only way to determine the exact amount of funding your child will receive in an ESA is to complete and submit an ESA application.   

ESA Rules

How can ESA money be used?

ESA money must be used on educational services and materials for the benefit of the student. ADE provides an extensive list of permitted and prohibited expenses.  

There is a searchable tool on the ESA webpage that allows parents to search for allowable items that ESA funds can be used to purchase.  

For more specific information about what you can and cannot purchase with ESA money, please read the ESA Parent Handbook.

Note that the Parent Handbook is only updated once every three years. Therefore, some recent changes to the ESA program are not reflected in the handbook. We recommend checking ESA’s webpage or calling ESA (602-364-1969) for the most current information.  

Additionally, while a student is on an ESA contract, the account holder cannot enroll the eligible student in a public school district, charter school, or public online school. Doing so will result in the termination of the ESA contract.  

Are parents required to make reports about spending ESA money?

Yes, when a parent enters into an ESA contract with ADE, the parent is responsible and required to report all expenses made on the ESA debit card or through the ClassWallet platform on a quarterly basis.  

  • Parents must include complete invoices or receipts when submitting expense reports, as well as all required credentials of providers or vendors. 
  • Debit card receipts must be submitted in the quarter that the transaction occurred.  
  • ADE is authorized to audit expenditures. ADE has a zero-tolerance policy on misspending.  
  • Misspending or failing to submit expense reports can result in ESA account suspension or termination and referral to the Attorney General’s Office of Collection or Fraud. 

What if I change my mind about ESA and want to re-enroll my child in a public school district or charter school?

An account holder can withdraw their student from the ESA program at any time. A student’s ESA account can be closed within the ESA Portal. Account Holders can also submit a HelpDesk ticket requesting account closure. 

The student’s account will be reviewed, and any outstanding debit card receipts or invoices will need to be submitted. The account holder will receive email confirmation when the account has been closed. Once closed, any remaining funds will be returned to the state’s general fund. Pursuant to A.A.C. R7-2-1509, if an account is not closed in good standing, the Department will refer to the State Board of Education. The Board may refer the case to the Attorney General’s Office for collections. 

ESA Implications for Students with Disabilities

Will my child retain her special education rights if she has an ESA account?

By accepting an ESA account, parents release the public school system (the school district or public charter school) from the obligation to educate their child. Most of the child’s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) will no longer apply. If a child accepts ESA, they will lose protections, including: 

  • The right to be provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE). 
  • The right to file a complaint with the Arizona Department of Education regarding a violation of IDEA committed by vendors providing ESA services.  
  • The right to engage in the State’s dispute resolution procedures, such as mediation or a due process hearing. 
  • The right to be educated by a qualified special education teacher. 
  • The right to a manifestation determination review before being long-term suspended or expelled. 
  • The right to participate in standardized testing. 

As explained below in the answer to Q. 15, a student who is using an ESA account retains the right to receive a reevaluation every three years.  

As explained below in the answer to Q. 16, a student who is using an ESA account retains the right to be considered for proportionate share special education services. 

Children with disabilities with an ESA may still be protected from discrimination by ESA service providers and vendors under other federal civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  

Opting out of the ESA program and re-enrolling the student in public school restores the child’s IDEA protections. 

 If I use ESA money to pay for my child to attend a private school, does the private school need to follow my child’s IEP?

No. As explained in the answer to Q. 11, most of IDEA does not apply to students who are not enrolled in the public school system. There is no obligation for a private school funded by ESA money to follow the IEP created by a child’s previous public school.  

If a private school is designed to serve students with disabilities, the school may wish to review a student’s IEP to determine what types of services or programming are appropriate for that student. The private school may choose to create an individualized plan for a student and/or to meet with parents on a regular basis, but the private school is under no legal obligation to do so. 

If I use ESA money to pay for my child to attend a private school and I disagree with the way the private school is educating my child, may I file a complaint with the Arizona Department of Education?

No. The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) does not have monitoring or enforcement authority over private schools, even if private school tuition is being paid with tax dollars through an ESA account. As explained in the answer to Q. 11, IDEA does not apply to private schools. Any complaints filed with ADE regarding a private school’s failure to comply with IDEA will not be investigated.  

If you disagree with the way your child’s private school is educating your child, you may try working with the private school teachers and administrators to make changes. If you are still not satisfied with your child’s education at a private school, you always have the option of closing your ESA account and re-enrolling your child in a public school district or public charter school that is subject to IDEA’s requirements. Be sure to check the ESA Parent Handbook for the correct procedures for closing the ESA account and re-enrolling in public school: 

 If I use ESA money to pay for my child to attend a private school and the private school discriminates against my child because of her disability, may I file a discrimination complaint?

In most cases, yes. Although private schools are not required to comply with IDEA, most are still covered by federal anti-discrimination laws. Private schools that receive federal funding are covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and private schools that do not receive any federal funding are covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), unless they fall under a narrow exemption for schools controlled by religious entities. 

Under these laws, students with disabilities are protected from discrimination in most private schools. This means that even though your child is not entitled to special education or related services under IDEA, the private school may have an independent legal obligation under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act to not discriminate against your child based on disability. Discrimination may include: 

  • Refusing to provide services;
  • Providing a lesser service; 
  • Segregating students unnecessarily; 
  • Refusing to provide reasonable modifications to policies and procedures (e.g., refusing to permit a service animal); 
  • Denying auxiliary aids and services (e.g., denying a sign language interpreter or audio format); and 
  • Refusing to remove architectural barriers.    

If you believe your child’s private school is discriminating against your child on the basis of his or her disability, you may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, with the U.S. Department of Justice, with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, or you may pursue a lawsuit in a court of competent jurisdiction. 

You can learn more about filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Right. 

You can learn more about filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

You can learn more about filing a complaint with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.

Who is responsible for conducting and paying for the reevaluation done every three years?

As explained in the answer to Q. 11, one of the only special education rights a child who is using ESA retains is the right to a reevaluation every three years.  

If your child attends a non-profit private school, the public school district in which the private school is located is responsible for the evaluation process. 

If your child attends a for-profit private school or is homeschooled, the public school district in which you (the child’s parent or guardian) reside is responsible for the evaluation process. 

If you are unsure which public school district is responsible for conducting a reevaluation of your child, you can contact ESA for support at 602-364-1969 or via email at  

 What types of documentation will ESA accept as proof of my child’s disability?

You can provide your child’s current Evaluation Report or Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan from an Arizona public school. 

Recently, as a result of legislative changes, ESA began also accepting independent evaluations for proof of disability. This means your child no longer needs to have an IEP or 504 plan from a public school district before they can be found eligible for a K-12 ESA. ESA will also accept independent evaluations to support a change in disability category in order to receive increased ESA funding. 

If you choose to seek an independent evaluation, you must get the evaluation from an independent third party. An independent third party is defined by statute as: 

  1. someone contracted with ADE, or in the interim while ADE develops contracts, 
  2. someone from a list that should be maintained by your county superintendent, or if the county superintendent does not have a list,  
  3. any qualified examiner. 

A “qualified examiner” is a licensed physician, psychiatrist or psychologist.  

This type of independent educational evaluation must be paid for by the school district within which the student resides and that serves the grade level of the student. 

Once an independent evaluation is completed, the parent must submit a HelpDesk ticket with the following information:  

  • A full copy of the private independent education evaluation from a Qualified Examiner; and 
  • A copy of the Qualified Examiner’s license showing that it was current at the time of the evaluation. This can be a copy from the board of examiner’s website showing the Qualified Examiner’s license number and expiration date. 

What types of documentation will ESA accept as proof of a change in my child’s eligibility category for services?

Like in Q.16, you can provide your child’s updated MET/Evaluation Report, IEP, or 504 plan from an Arizona public school. Alternatively, you may provide an independent evaluation as explained in Q.16.  

Is my child entitled to any special education or related services through the public school system while using ESA?

Children with disabilities who attend private schools or who are homeschooled, with or without an ESA, are considered “parentally placed private school children with disabilities” by the IDEA. While these students do not have the right to receive FAPE through an IEP, they might still be entitled to receive some special education and related services provided by the public school system under the IDEA’s proportionate share provisions. ESA students with disabilities who attend non-profit private schools or who are homeschooled are eligible for proportionate share services, while ESA students attending for-profit private schools are not. 

Parents may choose not to participate in proportionate share services offered by their local public school, but should be aware that this is an option. Accepting or rejecting this process has no bearing on your ESA contract or eligibility. 

You can learn more about proportionate share services on ADE’s website.

My child has specialized transportation as a related service in her IEP. Can ESA funding be used to pay for specialized transportation for my child?

The answer to this question recently changed. As a result of House Bill 2853, transportation between a student’s residence and school is now considered a qualified expense that ESA funding can be used on. This can include transportation provided by private schools or a third-party transportation provider; a commuter pass for public transportation; or a transportation network such as Uber, Lyft, or a taxi company. Note that transportation costs related to field trips, out of state travel, provider/tutor appointments, gas, mileage, and other related vehicle costs are not approved expenses. 

 My child uses a text-to-speech device, and her public school used to pay for it. Now that we have opened an ESA account, can we use ESA funding to purchase a text-to-speech device?

No. ESA funding cannot be used to purchase assistive technology.  

However, parents of students with disabilities are allowed to rent assistive technology. For the rented assistive technology item to be approved as an ESA expense, a renter’s agreement for the equipment must be submitted with the expense report. ESA funds cannot be used to pay for assistive technology that is returned damaged or late. 

Can I use ESA funding to pay a paraprofessional or educational aide to help me homeschool my child?

Yes, if your child has a disability and a MET/Evaluation Report, IEP, or 504 Plan is on file with ESA. Paraprofessionals and aides are an approved expense for students with disabilities only.  

ESA funding may also be used to pay for tutoring or teaching services and for educational therapies and services. You can read more about what credentials are required for each of these providers in the ESA Parent Handbook.

My child is turning 18 this school year, but has not met graduation requirements. Can we keep using ESA?

Yes. All children move in a cohort from the grade they entered ESA, so if your child began using ESA in 10th grade, he or she will be considered a 12th grader two years later. Typically, funding stops once a student completes the 12th grade. 

However, ESA students with a disability may be able to continue in the ESA program until the age of 22 if the student has not completed all high school graduation requirements by their cohort’s 12th grade year. The parent of such a student must log into the ESA portal and attest that the student has not graduated or earned a GED. This can continue each year until the year the student turns 22.   

Be aware, if it is found that the student has graduated and continues to receive ESA disbursements, ESA will ask that those funds be repaid.  

 My child is getting ready to finish high school. Can I use ESA funding for transition services to help my child prepare for post-secondary life?

Yes. ESA funds can be used to pay for vocational and life skills education approved by ADE. ESA funds can be spent on tuition at vocational/trade schools or programs such as, but not limited to, Joint Technical Education Districts (JTEDs), Career and Technical Education Districts (CTEDs), trade schools, community colleges, and vocational schools. ESA funds can be used to support dual enrollment and classes from post-secondary institutions. ESA funds may be used for textbooks required by the university or college classes, but cannot be used for room and board, meals, meal plans, food, transportation, etc.  

If you are unsure if a particular transition service or program is approved by ADE or is an acceptable use of ESA funding, you can contact ESA for support at 602-364-1969 or via email at  

 I do not believe my child’s public school is meeting her educational needs, but I do not want to forfeit my child’s special education rights by opening an ESA account. Is there another way to fund a private school placement?

Yes. In addition to ESA, there is another funding mechanism for private school placement called School Tuition Organizations (STOs). STOs are entities set up to receive income tax credit contributions that fund scholarships for students to attend qualified private schools located in Arizona. 

If you believe the least restrictive environment appropriate to your child’s needs is a private school, you may request this change in placement at an IEP meeting. If your child’s IEP team agrees that a private school is the least restrictive environment for your child, the team will change your child’s placement. 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 ADE and typically provide specialized programs specifically for students with disabilities. 

If you believe your child is not being provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by their public school district, and your child’s IEP team will not agree to a change in placement to a private school, you may unilaterally place your child in a private school, either paying tuition yourself or using a tool like ESA or STO to cover the cost of placement. If you notify your child’s public school at least 10 business days in advance of moving your child to private school, you then have the option to file a due process complaint against the public school alleging a denial of FAPE and seeking reimbursement for the cost the private placement. Due process is a time-intensive and sometimes costly undertaking, and we recommend consulting with an attorney before taking this route.  

Additional Resources


National Council on Disability 

Choice & Vouchers—Implications for Students with Disabilities” available online.


The Arizona Department of Education, Empowerment Scholarship Account Program 

Empowerment Scholarship Account Program Parent Handbook: School Year 2022-2023” available online.

New Resources