Gov. Doug Ducey won’t commit to providing the funds that schools chief Kathy Hoffman says she needs to properly administer the state’s voucher program.
“I believe that we can do better on Educational Savings Accounts,” Ducey said Wednesday, referring to the vouchers of state funds to send children to private and parochial schools by its formal name.
“We want the families that properly qualify for this benefit to be able to access it so their kids can get the proper education,” the governor said. “We believe that the parent knows better on that.”
In the meantime, however, there have been a series of complaints by parents who say they cannot get their kids enrolled. Issues range from the inability to get calls answered at the state Department of Education to the processing time for applications taking too long, to the point where approval – if it comes – is too late to use for the school year.
Hoffman has not denied the delays. But she said much of it can be blamed on lack of dollars.
Specifically, Hoffman pointed out that the voucher law entitles her agency to funding equal to 4 percent of the amount administered. That would come to $3.6 million.
Instead, the budget that was approved by lawmakers provided just $1.3 million.
The governor told Capitol Media Services he was aware of the issue.
“I know that there are resources necessary,” he said, promising to “work closely with the superintendent so we can fix this issue.”
But the governor dodged a question about how Hoffman – and even predecessor Republican Diane Douglas – said the agency needs the full $3.6 million to do the job properly and yet the budget he signed for the current year provided just a fraction of that.
“We’re going to review the budget request in proper order,” he said.
Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the Department of Education, stressed this isn’t a one-time thing or a new issue.
Swiat, who worked for Douglas, said she, too, requested but did not get the dollars she said are necessary. In fact, Swiat said, while the law provides for funding at 4 percent, it has never been higher than 2 percent.
He said Douglas did not go quietly, writing to the governor, the Legislature and the Auditor General’s Office that she did not understand why the department never got the full spending authority if this is a “pet project.”
The sometimes-controversial program provides tax dollars to parents who meet certain conditions to send their children to private and parochial schools. Cash also can be used for certain educational expenses for home-schooled students.
Originally promoted to help children with special needs, it has been expanded year after year to where it also covers foster children, children of the military, children who live on reservations and children attending schools rated D or F.
With statutory caps on enrollment, there are about 6,500 youngsters currently getting funding, which ranges from $5,400 a year for basic aid to more than $30,000 for students with special needs.
Swiat acknowledged the complaints from parents who want to put their children into the program but say they can’t get the information they need or their applications processed quickly enough.
He said, though, that’s because the agency’s employees dedicated to the program – there are just 12 now – have instead been focused on auditing the expenditures of parents whose children already get vouchers to be sure that they are not misspending the dollars. And Swiat said there’s a good reason for that.
“That’s what the Auditor General asked us to do last year,” he said, referring to a report which found that parents had made fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public funds. “We’re following the direction of our bosses.”
And that, he said, is why the need for more dollars.
He said Hoffman’s budget request for the coming fiscal year includes hiring an additional 20 staffers “and have justified that ask based on call volume.”
“We keep adding to the program,” Swiat said, with an anticipated 7,000 youngsters expected to get vouchers next budget year. “That means more reporting and funding has stayed flat the last few years.”
Swiat said that Hoffman has not had direct conversations with Ducey about the funding need but that “our offices talk.”
It is the budget plan that Ducey will roll out in January that becomes the starting point for negotiations. But Hoffman also will need to convince the lawmakers who have to vote on the package before sending it back to the governor.
Earlier this month members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted to seek a review of where the money is going now.
That report is due in April. And some committee members said their views on requests for additional dollars could depend on whether the audit shows that the existing dollars are being spent properly and efficiently.
Swiat said he’s not sure how much more Hoffman can do to promote the funding, saying that she actually has higher priorities, starting with the amount of dollars the state provides on a per-student basis and teacher salaries.
“Per pupil funding is among the lowest in the nation,” he said. And Swiat said it is a question of Hoffman putting her attention in getting funding where it will do the most for the most children.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously reported there are 5,500 children in the ESA program. The actual number is 6,500.