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Department of Education says ESA spreadsheet contained errors

EAn Arizona Department of Education spreadsheet showing millions in unspent funds in empowerment scholarship accounts contained a substantial number of errors, a department spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The spreadsheet was the basis of an Arizona Capitol Times story published online on Tuesday, headlined, “Millions remain unspent in school choice program.’’

Jennifer Liewer, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said it has confirmed the essence of the story – that many students have not spent all of their disbursements and have built significant carryovers.  But she said many of the specifics of the spreadsheet have turned out to be inaccurate.

“The data was wrong,” she said.

The numbers confirmed to be incorrect were not included in the story, but the department is double checking those spreadsheet numbers to see if they are correct.   Liewer said it was currently unknown which numbers cited in the story were correct and which if any were wrong.

She said the problem stems from an antiquated data system that required the manual transfer of data into the spreadsheet.

Liewer said the way the data system is programmed doesn’t allow for analysis.

“We look at every case, we audit every quarter by hand,” she said.

The department realized the spreadsheet was incorrect when a staffer went back to check the numbers after a Capitol Times reporter questioned why dozens of students appeared to have overspent their accounts, some by thousands of dollars.

The spreadsheet also indicated that parents with empowerment scholarship accounts have amassed roughly $2.5 million of unspent public money over three years.

The spreadsheet had been created at the request of Sen. Anna Tovar and showed how much had been disbursed to 1,495 students over the three years of the program. Tovar, who cited figures on the spreadsheet on the floor of the Senate as she argued against a bill that expands the program, said it took seven weeks for her to receive the spreadsheet.

“This underscores the need for stricter oversight and accountability,” Tovar said in a text message. “If that had been happening all along, we wouldn’t have to wait seven weeks for an inaccurate report.”

The Senate gave preliminary approval to the bill to expand the program on Wednesday.

Arizona’s empowerment scholarship account program gives parents money they can use to send their children to private schools or to teach them at home.   The program pays a parent 90 percent of the funding that would have gone to his student’s public school. The money can be spent on a limited number of items such as private school tuition, tutoring, home school curriculum, and college tuition.

Parents are audited and cannot spend the money on whatever they want or hang onto to it indefinitely.  But unspent dollars means public money earmarked for education is not being used.

The program began in 2011 with just disabled students and has grown to allow an array of students such as ones from failing schools and children of military members.

There are 692 students in the program, almost 80 percent of whom have special needs.

Opponents of the program say it drains money from public schools, potentially damaging them as the money goes into private schools.   Public school officials worry that the empowerment program has the potential to grow to hundreds of thousands of students, although enrollment is capped at roughly 5,400 students until 2019.

Any monies left over after the student graduates from an Arizona college or four years after high-school graduation if the student doesn’t attend college goes back to the state.   If they spend money on something they are not allowed to spend it on, they would have to pay it back.

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