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Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Attorney General Investigates Arizona’s School Voucher Program

Attorney General Investigates Arizona’s School Voucher Program

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The Arizona Department of Education is halting certain purchases of school vouchers after the Attorney General’s Office began investigating allegations that the department authorized illegal spending under the program.

The Department of Education will no longer allow families enrolled in the Empowerment School Account program to purchase supplemental materials and textbooks without a curriculum to justify those purchases, according to the program’s executive director, John Ward.

Students enrolled in the voucher program can use public money to pay for education expenses such as tuition, supplies and tutoring at private school. In June, there were approximately 75,000 students enrolled.

The Scholarship Empowerment Account program — the ESA program, for short — will cost taxpayers about $864.4 million for the next school year, according to the Department of Education.

Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Broughton told the department in a July 1 letter that the Education Department’s guidance indicated it allowed spending outside of state law. The letter asks the department to stop approving these expenses.

The statute authorizes voucher funds to pay for “textbooks required by a qualified school” or postsecondary institution. However, the program’s official handbook and list of allowable expenses do not require families to demonstrate that such purchases are required by their child’s school or institution, suggesting that parents have been able to subvert the law by also following the department’s guidelines.

State law also provides voucher money to cover supplemental materials, which the State Board of Education defines as “materials required or recommended by the curriculum.” The textbook, however, states that the additional materials “do not require curriculum.”

The department has committed to reviewing its practices and procedures to comply with state law, according to a July 3 response letter from Ward.

The State Council approved the practices in the voucher manual under investigation

Ward said the practices under investigation predate his tenure and even date back to the administration of former Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, whom Tom Horne was elected to replace in early 2023.

The practice of approving supplemental materials and textbook expenditures without first seeking proof that a school’s curriculum requires them was incorporated into the program’s Parent Handbook in April 2023, when the Arizona State Board of Education voted to adopt it, Ward said.

State Board of Education Executive Director Sean Ross told The Arizona Republic that the department recently notified the board of the potential need for changes, and the board is working with the department to learn more.

The Department of Education will follow the attorney general’s directive and work with the State Board to remove these practices from the current textbook and ensure compliance with state law, Ward said.

Ward also pledged to respond to 17 questions in the attorney general’s July 1 letter, though he said the department would need two months to do so.

Critics have long sought voucher reform

The education voucher program has endured calls to cut spending and tighten oversight since lawmakers voted in 2022 to expand the program to cover every K-12 child in Arizona. Previously, vouchers were only available to select groups, such as students with special needs.

This led to an immediate increase in enrollment, initially driven by parents who already had children in private school using taxpayer dollars to help cover the fees they had previously paid out of pocket.

Save Our Schools, a public school advocacy group that has led the fight against universal voucher access, praised Attorney General Kris Mayes “for working to protect Arizona taxpayer dollars from rampant abuses in the ESA voucher program.” .

“Save Our Schools Arizona has long expressed concern about these illegal purchases, recently highlighting millions of dollars spent on hundreds of dollars worth of LEGO sets and over $100 million in non-educational purchases, all of which were approved without any curriculum attached.” the group wrote in a public statement on Wednesday.

State regulators have rejected most requests for new guarantees.

In March, the State Council voted to keep the textbook as is for another year rather than support some substantive changes. For example, voucher holders could not have purchased items “that do not involve a reasonable expense (such as designer items or items priced at or near the high end of the price range for the item type). “

And last month, when the Legislature passed a bipartisan $16.1 billion budget, the substantive reforms that Democratic lawmakers have been pushing for all session were conspicuously absent.

One bill would have required a review of the efficiency, effectiveness and necessity of the voucher program. Another would have prohibited parents from selling items purchased with voucher money and required prior approval for transactions over $500.

Lawmakers did agree to some key voucher reforms, however. One change closed a loophole that lawmakers said allowed parents to use vouchers contrary to the program’s intent, costing the state about $2.5 million.

Voucher holders were able to enter the program after the end of the public school year, receive six months of funding, and then return to public school by the start of the next school year. Families then scraped together voucher dollars strictly for summer use, never missing a day of class in a public school.

Other reforms require the Arizona Department of Education to maintain an online database of allowed and prohibited expenses and prevent service providers and teachers from being paid through the voucher program if the State Board of Education has reprimanded them for “immoral or unprofessional conduct “. Another change would require the Empowerment Scholarship Account program to reimburse families for qualifying purchases, a practice of the Department of Education but not written into law.

Reach the reporter at [email protected].

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