“As goes the family, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Pope St. John Paul II first spoke these profound words in 1986, speaking to a culture still reeling from the effects of the sexual revolution, communism, and ever-increasing secularization. For millions across the globe, the words spoke to a need to reemphasize the importance of the family in every aspect of society, from politics to education.
Alumna Christine Accurso ’01 certainly related to the latter, with the words echoing in her head for the next 36 years—particularly as she joined the fight for school choice in her home state of Arizona. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Accurso and others, families in Arizona now have access to state funds to put their children into the school of their choice—ensuring that many families are now able to afford strong Catholic educations for their children that otherwise would not be possible.
How did Accurso achieve this great victory? Her story begins 11 years ago, when Arizona passed the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) law, which allows parents to receive their child’s state tax dollars that would otherwise go to a public school for their child. These funds can be used for any type of K-12 education outside of the public school system, including private school, homeschool, microschool, hybrid school, or a pod school of the parent’s choice.
This story comes from the latest issue of Instaurare Magazine, the official magazine of Christendom College. Read more from Instaurare here!
In theory, the law sounds like an ideal way for students to be able to afford different schools for their children outside of the public school system—including Catholic private schools. In reality, however, numerous qualifications for the ESA made school choice far more difficult for families across the state of Arizona, especially when applying for religious schools.
Accurso saw this pain and suffering and decided to take action.
“I have watched a lot of families struggle to raise their children because they are always fighting against the public school system,” said Accurso, who has lived in Gilbert, Arizona, for the past 16 years. “Many families desired to choose another path of education for their children, especially after the pandemic, and did not have the means to do it. Nationwide, we saw parents rise up to try and make changes in their public schools, and many were unsuccessful.”
Accurso had her own difficult experiences with the ESA before she was able to obtain it for one of her sons. The state fought her on giving her the funds numerous times before she was finally able to obtain them, enabling her son to attend Seton Catholic Preparatory School. She recognized the benefits of the ESA and the need to alter its requirements.
“Our middle son qualified for an ESA and had it for nine years,” recalled Accurso. “We saw how great this law was because we could truly guide his education freely. We had tried the public school system when he was very young, and it was not a good fit at all for him, but when we looked at trying to afford a private school that would fit his needs, it was quite expensive for our modest budget. However, it was at [Seton Preparatory School] that the principal told us about the empowerment scholarship program at the state. We applied for one, and Anthony received more than enough funding to pay for the tuition. The ESA allowed us the true freedom to educate our child, because funds were not an issue in deciding what school was best for him.”
Seeing these issues with the ESA firsthand, along with its great benefits, Accurso began to become more publicly involved in the fight for greater school choice in the state, recording videos and giving interviews to various publications. Her hard work ultimately bore incredible fruit, with the state legislature and governor passing a law last year that opened the ESA up to all K-12 students with no qualifications necessary. When the law passed, however, the teachers unions and related groups began efforts to get it overturned through a referendum attempt. Accurso immediately went to work, using her personal network of over 1,000 families to educate voters before they were asked to sign the unions’ petitions.
Accurso poured hundreds of hours into the effort, working tirelessly to ensure that all 1.1 million of Arizona’s school-aged kids would not be deprived of the ESA money they were promised. The result of all her efforts was a huge victory for families across the state. The unions were unable to get anywhere near the number of signatures they needed to overturn the law. On Sep. 30, 2022, the new universal ESA law went into effect in Arizona, and a new, pro-school choice superintendent of public instruction was elected to lead the state’s Department of Education. One of his first orders of business? Appointing Accurso as the new executive director of the ESA program for the entire state.
In her new role, which she began in January of this year, Accurso is now in charge of administering ESA funds across the state. An office that was previously in disarray is now on its way to running smoothly, thanks to Accurso and her staff. Last year, the program was assisting approximately 12,000 students. Now, just a few months into 2023, the program is assisting approximately 50,000 students, enabling them to receive $7,000 in ESA funds a year that families can use for education however they choose.
Throughout this hard-fought battle, Accurso relied on her Catholic faith, turning to it constantly as she suffered criticism and attacks from unions and politicians across Arizona and beyond.
“Everything I do, I do for my love of Jesus Christ,” said Accurso. “The Catholic faith is of the utmost importance for me and guides me in all that I do. It is my desire to echo Our Blessed Mother’s ‘yes’ every day when I seek to do the will of God. I never desired to work for the government, but He led me there, and my ‘yes’ looks different each day as I grow to serve in unexpected ways. My decisions are based on gospel principles, along with a lot of prayer and consultation with my husband and children. When you say ‘yes’ to the Lord every day, it takes you on an adventurous journey.”
Since taking over the ESA program, Accurso has begun speaking across the country about school choice, telling other families about her experiences. While her main focus is on getting the ESA program running as smoothly as possible in Arizona first, she hopes to bring the story of what happened in Arizona to as many families as possible, inspiring them to bring similar programs to their states as well.
“When we won the battle last summer,” said Accurso, “a Christendom graduate that fought the unions with me sent me a text that said, ‘Dr. Carroll would be proud of you. You have helped children have a path that they need and deserve…. Restore all things in Christ!’ The influence of Dr. Carroll [Christendom College’s founder] is alive and well in Arizona and across our country. I hope to continue to speak in order to get out the message of how this program was created and how it works, so that it can benefit the children of our country and not just in Arizona.”
Thirty-seven years after Pope St. John Paul II pointed to the need to restore the family in Christ, the mission to do so continues to be undertaken by people across the world—including Accurso. Thanks to her efforts, 1.1 million school-aged children in Arizona have access to the funding necessary to attend the schools of their choice, including Catholic schools. People across the nation are taking note of her efforts and are now inspired to do the same.
The family can be restored in Christ, especially at the educational level. Accurso is showing other families the way. With hard work and faith, they too can accomplish the same for their children.
Written by Zach Smith, Associate Director of Marketing & Communications.