A Republican lawmaker wants the state to hire a private company to oversee and administer Arizona’s voucher program and wants State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, not the newly elected Democratic superintendent, to choose the vendor.
Sen. David Livingston’s proposal would sweep oversight of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program from the Department of Education and it’s Democratic leader, Superintendent Kathy Hoffman.
Instead, SB1320 places the responsibility of managing and auditing ESAs in the hands of the treasurer’s office and Yee, a strong ally of the voucher program during her previous tenure as a state representative and senator.
“For a number of years, maybe four or five years, we’ve had problems with administration of the ESA funds at Department of Education. So, we’ve been trying to fix it. It hasn’t been going anywhere,” said Livingston, a Peoria Republican. “We just need somebody else to manage it, and they’re going to use a third party vendor to do it anyhow.”
If lawmakers approve SB1320, Hoffman would be stripped of a key duty of the superintendent’s office after mere months on the job.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, said that’d be a mistake.
“It’s taking an education program out of the hands of education experts,” she said. “The ESA program is more than just money moving back and forth.”
Penich-Thacker also said the bill violates the spirit of Proposition 305, when voters rejected a law signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2017 that would’ve expanded access to the ESA program to all Arizona students. Save Our Schools Arizona, which was formed to challenge the voucher expansion law, ran a successful campaign to get voters to reject it on the 2018 ballot.
A part of that rejected law would have swept some responsibility for financial oversight of the ESA program from the education department to the treasury.
A full scale sweep of all responsibility for the voucher program isn’t something voters would support either, Penich-Thacker said.
Penich-Thacker also disputed Livingston’s core criticism of the education department. If lawmakers aren’t satisfied with ESA management and oversight, they have only themselves to blame, she said, since the agency’s efforts have been underfunded for years.
Former Superintendent Diane Douglas highlighted the issue last year. In a letter to Ducey and Republican legislators, sent in December, she accused GOP leaders of handcuffing her staff’s ability to manage the ESA program to a lack of adequate funding.
In all but two years since the voucher program was launched in 2011, lawmakers have allowed the Department of Education to spend less than half of what’s prescribed by law.
“This is the same tactic that the school choice movement uses with public education. You starve them, then you point the finger and say, ‘Why can’t you perform better? … Give [the Department of Education] the money and see what they can accomplish,” Penich-Thacker said.
Livingston dismissed Douglas’ criticism and said the Department of Education hasn’t proven itself worthy of more funding.
“Many of us were disappointed in our former superintendent for saying that, and she knew what our concerns were — that she needed to do a better job, and if they were willing to do a better job, we would be willing to allocate more money,” he said. “And it was one of those, who goes first? And it wasn’t going the direction we want… It’s very hard to put more money into something that isn’t working well.”
Livingston likened the situation to other Republican-led efforts to give more money to high performing schools. That is, the better one performs, the more funding one deserves.
“What a novel concept for anything in education, isn’t it?” Livingston said.
Yee declined to comment through a spokesman. As for Hoffman, spokesman Stefan Swiat said Livingston’s proposal is “unnecessary.”
Livingston said Hoffman is welcome to try and convince him she can do better than her predecessor. He also acknowledged he did not consult the education department before sponsoring SB1320.
“Superintendent Hoffman is welcome to come see me, or send any one of her people to come talk to me and discuss, or she’s willing to come to committee, as always,” he said. “Her and her representatives need to make that case.”
In a statement, Hoffman said she’s forming a task force to examine ways to better the ESA program. She’s invited the governor’s office and the treasurer’s office to join, and Save Our Schools Arizona, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and former lawmaker Steve Smith, who’s now the state director for the American Federation for Children, which backed the ESA expansion rejected in Prop. 305.
“The aim of the task force is to seek cooperation, an array of perspectives and a variety of solutions in order to determine the best course of action for this program,” Hoffman stated.
SB1320 is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday afternoon.