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Education Dept says its testimony on ‘voucher’ program was flawed

education-money-620Arizona Department of Education lobbyists inaccurately testified before legislative committees about funding for students in a program that provides public money for private education, according to an Arizona Department of Education memo issued today.

Department staffer Aiden Fleming, who manages the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, informed Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal in the memo that this was the second time this week the department has provided inaccurate information about the program to the public and lawmakers.

The latest flub involved testimony given pertaining to SB1237, which proposes to provide funding at charter school levels for ESA students who attended a charter school the year before entering the program.

The original version of the bill proposed using the charter school formula, about $1,200 more per student than traditional public school students, for all students in the program.

The department was pushing the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, to make the language clear and consistent with its interpretation of state statute.

Department lobbyists told lawmakers the department began using the charter-school formula for students in the program in the 2013-14 school year, based on their interpretation of a 2013 law.

“Due to a miscommunication between me and my staff, I have recently become aware that the ESA formula for this school year (2013-2014) does not include the charter school additional assistance and that ESA staff plan to calculate the funding formula to include the additional funding for the 2014-2015 school year,” Fleming wrote. “To clarify, no ESA participants have received the charter school funding to date.”

The bill failed March 3 in the House Education Committee. During the hearing, an Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist, Janice Palmer, warned that passage of the bill would bring a lawsuit. The measure passed the committee March 17 after being reconsidered and scaled back to using the charter school funding formula on just students who entered the program from charter schools.

The bill is set for debate in the House Committee of the Whole on April 21. On April 17, the House killed a bill that would have sharply expanded the number of eligible students for the program. A twin bill, SB1236, is in the Senate awaiting a final vote.

Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said the blunder adds more weight to the argument that the department’s work to implement the program has been beneath the expectations of the state.

“Monday is going to be kind of culminating day, it is looking like,” Ogle said.

Earlier this week, the department acknowledged significant errors in data on a spreadsheet that showed parents of ESA students had not spent millions of dollars, which were sitting in a bank account not being used.

Sen. Anna Tovar, D-Phoenix, used the inaccurate data Wednesday to argue her case on the Senate floor against SB1236.

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.

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.

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