‘My child, my choice’: Parents, children march to support school voucher program

Nyeshua Miller, a teacher at a Black Mothers Forum “microschool” joins other forum members and marchers who support Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, known as ESAs or school vouchers, in Phoenix on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. ESA advocates say they can expand educational opportunities beyond the public school system. (Photo by Emily Mai/Cronkite News)

Tajiri Freedom, the principal of New Gains Academy, marches around the Arizona State Capitol building in support of the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program in Phoenix. on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (Photo by Emily Mai/Cronkite News)

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)

PHOENIX – 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.

(Video by John Brown/Cronkite News)

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.

Emma Gibford, 9, and her mother Charlotte Lawrence, marched in a rally at the state Capitol on Wednesday in support of the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program. Money from the program helps pay for a tutor, Lawrence said. (Photo by Emily Mai/Cronkite News)

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.”

Editor’s note: A photo accompanying this story has been deleted and a video has been edited to remove imagery of some students. School officials identified the students as not having parental permission through the school to be photographed. A related Instagram post also was removed.

Ariana Araiza air-ree-AH-nah ah-RYE-zuh (she/her)
Health Reporter, Phoenix

Ariana Araiza expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in film and media studies. Araiza is assigned to Cronkite News as a digital reporter focusing on health.

John Brown jahn brown (he/him/his)
News Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

John Brown expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science. Brown has previously interned at MSNBC, NBC 5 Chicago and PBS NewsHour West.

Emily Mai EM-uh-lee my (she/they)
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Emily Mai expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Mai graduated from Arizona State University in 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Mai is part of the marketing and public relations team for ASU Gammage.