FILE - High school in Arizona

School busses at Pinnacle High School which is located in north Phoenix, Arizona. PHS opened in 2000, and is a part of the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) is being sued by a conservative-leaning think tank over its handling of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program.

Attorneys from the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute warned the department last month that its policy requiring parents to have quarterly expense reports accepted in order to receive funding violates state law. The complaint, filed Tuesday, alleges the department's approval of the reports has taken months in some cases.

ADE also created a handbook covering the ESA program informing parents of the required rules to receive funding. Arizona's Administrative Procedure Act is in the spotlight with the legal complaint, primarily focused on how the provisions of the ESA handbook were implemented unconstitutionally. 

State law mandates that any new rules and regulations must undergo an extensive public comment period and must be reviewed and approved by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Commission. 

The lawsuit alleges that the department did not do these things.

“These rules restrict the rights of parents and impose a series of limitations on participating parents that deprives them of choices, financially hinders both the parents and children, undermines the program, and violates Arizona law,” reads the lawsuit.

A department spokesperson was unable to be reached for comment. 

Arizona's ESA program, which Goldwater has been a supporter of, functions as an education savings account for families in-need, and uses partial funds typically dedicated to a student’s public school education to go towards public school alternativesThe program is only accessible to special needs students, students from low-performing schools, students from military families, and students who live on Native American reservations. 

Department officials have responded to the queries of the institute with a series of letters ensuring that the ESA program is implemented correctly. According to the agency, they told Goldwater attorneys that parents satisfy the requirements of the program.

The Goldwater Institute has provided counsel on behalf of a plaintiff seeking injunctive relief, including reimbursement of attorney fees and a retraction of the existing ESA rules.

Kathy Hoffman, superintendent of public instruction, and Karla Escobar, director of the empowerment scholarship account program, are named defendants in the lawsuit.