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Updated Aug 3, 2014 - 1:43 pm

Arizona scholarship program turning away more kids

PHOENIX -- Hundreds of Arizona students failed to get into a state scholarship program because their families thought they would simply get a check, an education department official said.

Aidan Fleming, who administers the Empowerment Scholarship Account program for the Arizona Department of Education, told the Arizona Capitol Times this week that many applicants were wholly uninformed about the application process. Hundreds of families realized their kids weren't eligible. Also, they didn't want to pull their children out of public school or keep track of their spending, he said. As a result, they ended up not following through with applying.

``We had people passing by and seeing a billboard and they thought free money and they put in an app, or they were being solicited door-to-door by (the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options) and they had no idea what they were signing up for,'' Fleming said.

He also disputed claims that many students didn't make it because of any dysfunction within the department.

Representatives of some nonprofits who helped students navigate the paperwork have expressed concern at the number of children who didn't get in. Christina Martinez, of Adelante Public Affairs, said her organization and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options worked with 600 families with children in under-performing schools. According to Martinez, only 154 of them received acceptance letters.

Martinez said she attributes the low figure to an understaffed Department of Education, which had no Spanish-language translators. She also said department personnel failed to return phone calls and only held workshops during times when parents had to be at work.

``It's sad because now you're looking at a thousand plus individuals that may or may not have even had the chance,'' Martinez said.

For fiscal year 2015, the department fielded more than 2,300 applications. More than 1,300 children have been enrolled, up from 692 students last year. The program is currently capped at 5,000 students through 2019.

The program provides 90 percent of basic state aid to children who leave regular public schools. Those who leave charter schools also get 90 percent of the extra money those charters receive.

Parents receive a pre-paid debit card from the Department of Education that has restrictions in place to ensure the funds are spent on education.

It started in 2011 as a scholarship and voucher program for disabled students. According to Fleming, disabled students make up the majority of next year's enrollment followed by those in failing schools.

The Department of Education estimated about $17 million in fiscal year 2015 will go toward the scholarships.

Lawmakers in this year's legislative session pursued expanding the program.

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Information from: Arizona Capitol Times, http://www.arizonacapitoltimes.com

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