A school choice organization fired its third broadside in as many months against the Arizona Department of Education, accusing the Democratic administration of playing fast and loose with state laws to stifle the voucher program.
The attack prompted some education officials to speculate that it’s the latest attempt to wrest control of the program, which provides state money so children can attend private schools, from Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
A video published July 18 on YouTube by the American Federation for Children (AFC) describes long wait times for parents with questions about Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
It comes on the heels of two other recent videos, the first of which in May was about the department demanding Navajo families repay ESA money they erroneously spent at a New Mexico private school. A second video one month later featured a Sierra Vista boy who was initially rejected from the ESA program because although he has an active-duty military parent, the parent was his stepmother and not a biological parent.
Each video sparked calls for scrutiny of Hoffman’s handling of the program. Richie Taylor, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the attacks are part of a concerted effort to remove the ESA program from the department’s control.
“They [the American Federation for Children] want to show the department can’t properly manage the program and ultimately would like to see it privatized,” Taylor said.
The latest video features a Gilbert mother, Christine Accurso, who said she has spent countless hours on hold with the department’s ESA hotline. It also shows emails from other parents who sought answers to questions they had about their children’s voucher contracts before the expiration of the 45-day period they have to sign those contracts.
Accurso said her main concern was to be heard by the department and get her questions answered before her son was set to start at a new school.
Unlike other parents, Accurso didn’t make any other attempts to contact the department by voicemail or by email. But she did make calls over roughly a two-month span dating back to May.
However, according to the department, she eventually talked on the phone with Karla Escobar, the ESA director, on July 23 for 30 minutes, had her questions answered and even thanked both Escobar and Hoffman for calling.
Department officials say Accurso’s long wait times are another example of insufficient funding for the program. State law allows for up to 4% of the funds allocated for the ESA program to be used for administration, but lawmakers only authorized a portion of that.
Both Hoffman and her Republican predecessor, Diane Douglas, pushed for more funds to administer the voucher program. The department now receives about $1.25 million for ESA administration, and spends about half of that on employee pay and benefits.
To make matters worse, of the 13 full-time positions responsible for the ESA program, only nine employees are currently available at the department each day, department spokesman Stefan Swiat said. One position is vacant, Swiat said, while three other employees are on extended leave.
That leaves three employees in management positions, three employees responsible for monitoring fraud and other reports, and three workers handling applications, the phone lines and emails.
About 6,500 Arizona students use vouchers, meaning each employee in the ESA office has a caseload of hundreds of students.
Even a full staff of 13 workers wouldn’t be enough, Swiat said. ESA management estimates it would take 30 employees to properly handle the number of applications and questions the department fields from ESA parents.
“If anyone is running a small business, they would never create a model that would put this much burden on so few employees,” Swiat said.
While the department describes long wait times as proof more administrative funding is needed, critics including Accurso, the AFC and Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, say the department has enough money.
AFC spokeswoman Kim Martinez said Hoffman balked at the chance to receive the full 4% of funds during the legislative session.
Martinez said Allen’s SB1395, which would have expanded vouchers, also would have given Hoffman millions more in administrative funding, though department officials said the eleventh-hour offer for funding came with unacceptable strings attached
Hoffman opposed the bill, which budget analysts determined would increase eligibility to the ESA program and thus draw more dollars from the state general fund as more families apply for the voucher program.
Though there was no language in SB1395 to provide such funding, Swiat said Allen did attempt to revive the bill by offering administrative funding. In exchange, Allen asked Hoffman to line up votes for the bill.
That offer came without specifics and “without any assurances about whether ADE would have that spending authority in perpetuity,” Swiat said. “In short, we didn’t believe the bill would pass and we weren’t going to whip votes for Senator Allen with no assurance that we would have access to the money that the law says that we should receive.”
Allen, who did not respond to a request for comment, has previously said she tried to assuage Hoffman’s concerns and had promised to remove any language that was considered an expansion of the ESA program, though no such deletion was ever adopted.
Martinez said there was no doubt Hoffman turned down the chance to add more money to administer the ESA program.
“By Hoffman’s own admission in her statement, she says she wanted the money offered but didn’t want the ‘strings attached’ — as in the other parts of the bill. Senator Allen was pretty clear in her statements in the video of how everything happens,” Martinez said.
Accurso said she followed Allen’s bill during session and didn’t want to be used as a political pawn to increase the department’s budget.
“I had this gut instinct, just because I had my antenna up politically, that I don’t want her to use this as an excuse for new funding, and that’s exactly what she’s done,” Accurso said.
And Steve Smith, the former lawmaker who now works as state director for the American Federation for Children, said it doesn’t matter how much funding the department receives.
“You can’t break the law because you didn’t get what you wanted in the budget,” Smith said. “You are statutorily obligated to give those families a response within 45 days and just because you maybe didn’t get what you wanted doesn’t mean you can skirt the law.”
The video marks the latest rift in the relationship between Hoffman and the school choice organization and Republican lawmakers who support its mission.
Smith represented AFC on an ESA Task Force created by Hoffman in February, but after the organization released its first video the superintendent said “trust was broken” between the two and decided to remove Smith.
That set into motion what Taylor, the department spokesman, speculates is AFC’s goal to privatize and “find ways to expand (the program) allowing students to be sent out of state for school.”
The videos have already stirred outrage among some Republican lawmakers. Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, responded to the latest video by calling on Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate Hoffman for “letting her personal disapproval of the ESA program affect her legal obligation to follow the law.”
Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said they’re focused on working with the department and “assisting the agency however we can to help fulfill their statutory duties and meet the timely needs of Arizona families who want to enroll in the ESA program.”
Anderson said Brnovich’s office is “optimistic” that, moving forward, ADE will have the legal advice and resources needed to successfully manage the program.
AFC is likely not done making videos at this point, Smith said.
He said there’s no shortage of parents who have issues with the ESA program, and the group will continue producing videos as needed.
“We’ll continue to make the public aware as long as ADE continues to not do their job,” he said.