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Innovative scholarships plagued by antiquated equipment

Arizona’s empowerment scholarship account program is a modern era idea administered in a stone-age fashion.

Three staffers keep their noses in the paper files of 684 students because there is little automation associated with the program. They enter data from the files by hand into an antiquated database. Some of the files have grown to four or five inches thick.

Aiden Fleming, who administers the program for the Arizona Department of Education, said the department asked the Legislature for $400,000 for administrative costs for fiscal-year 2015, but received only $200,000. Additional funds could go to automating the program, which would comfortably keep the number of full-time staff at three, Fleming said.

“But if you suddenly drop 10,000 kids on our plate, yeah, obviously we’re going to have to look at what we’re doing,” he added.

The program, capped at roughly 5,000 students until 2019, is bound to grow for the 2014-15 school year since 2,479 parents applied for it, more than double the previous year, after a school choice group conducted a marketing campaign aimed at low-income neighborhoods.

Arizona’s empowerment scholarship account program pays a parent 90 percent of the funding that would have gone to his or her student’s public school. The money can be spent on such things as private school tuition, tutoring and home school curriculum.

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

A small group of Republican lawmakers in the 2014 legislative session teamed with Democrats to kill a massive expansion of eligible students, although smaller expansions were passed allowing kindergartners and children whose parents were killed in war to be eligible. Those children won’t be able to apply until the 2015-16 school year.

The department estimates roughly 250,000 students are eligible, far more than have expressed an interest.

The department recently came under fire for its administration of the program after providing Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar, D-Phoenix, with an error-filled spreadsheet showing the amount of money parents don’t spend.

Tovar used the bad information to argue on the Senate floor against the proposed massive expansion.

Fleming also disclosed April 18 that lobbyists unintentionally testified inaccurately about program funding in legislative hearings because of a miscommunication between him and staff members.

Tovar said those mistakes prove the program lacks oversight and accountability.

Stacey Morley, a lobbyist for the Arizona Department of Education, said the program is administratively heavy because the department audits each account each quarter rather than just once a year as the law requires.

The audits examine whether each dollar is spent in compliance with the law. Morley said if the staff discovers misspent money in one quarter, the disbursement can be adjusted in the next quarter.

“I don’t want a parent to misspend money and then at the end of the year I have to tell them they have to give me $10,000,” Morley said.

The audits have uncovered misspending that led to kids to being removed from the program or their parents having to repay money, and even some fraud.

Morley said, for instance, a student could be removed if his parent doesn’t submit expense reports. The department has submitted a handful of account holders for criminal investigation with the Attorney General’s Office.

Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said only one investigation led to criminal charges.

A Queen Creek woman pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft, less than $1,000, in June 2013, according to Maricopa County Superior Court records.

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