With the new school year approaching Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes issued a warning Monday over the use of now-universal school choice vouchers, or Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) fundsreminding families that private institutions fall outside the realm of some federal protections for students with disabilities.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne fired back at the Mayes statement, saying his office is confident that “every penny of these funds is used for valid educational purposes.

Previous Arizona Governor Doug Ducey expanded school choice voucher eligibility to all students within the state during the last year of his term. That program expansion is taking effect now, for the upcoming 2023-24 school year.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, as of Monday more than 60,000 students have accessed ESA funds for a variety of educational expenses.

In the statement, Mayes said families should “be aware of the rights they give up when they leave the public school system”:

With the universal expansion of ESAs and the new school year beginning, families should be aware that when they accept ESA funds and leave the public school system, they give up rights under the federal statute that guarantees children with disabilities a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and the federal statute that provides parents with the right to access their childrens educational records (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA)… …If using ESA funds for private school or schooling at home is the preferred educational choice, families should make sure they choose reputable schools and vendors. Even still, families should know that when they accept an ESA, they lose protections from discrimination related to a childs learning abilities, religion and sexual orientation. Under A.R.S. 15-2404, a school that accepts ESA funds shall not be required to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy or curriculum. Since many private schools have admissions policies or practices that would be illegal at a public school, it is important that families know this before giving up their right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education. ~ Statement on ESA funds by AG Kris Mayes

Families should not be denied admission or kicked out of private schools because of a childs disabilities,” said Mayes in the statement. “…private schools often refuse to share the educational records behind those decisions. Because FAPE and FERPA dont apply to private schools, families have no recourse under federal law. Its important for Arizona families to be aware of the rights they give up when they leave the public school system.”

Horne’s statement did not address the potential for discrimination under the voucher sustem, but did say in his response that once he took office back in January he hired an internal auditor to examine ESA transactions. He says his office is ensuring each instance of funds usage “is conducted according to the law and [that] all funding is used appropriately.”

Mayes suggests anyone who believes they have been victimized by fraudulent activity should file reports with the AG’s office at azag.gov/consumer.

She also says those that believe they have been discriminated against while attempting to use ESA funds should file a civil rights complaint at azag.gov/civil-rights.