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Republicans press to remove oversight of voucher program away from education agency

Jar for coins

A pair of Republican state senators plans to independently amend an Empowerment Scholarship Accounts bill to change partial oversight of the program and establish a plan to determine what happens to unused money in accounts with high balances. 

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, and Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, introduced separate floor amendments to Allen’s ESA bill, which, as originally proposed, would allow students on the Navajo Nation to spend their account money on a private school that falls within a two-mile radius of the state border. If approved, that would legally allow the students to pay for a school in New Mexico with Arizona state money.  

Both amendments were adopted and the bill passed through the Senate with a 16-14 vote on Feb. 26. 

Allen’s amendment to her SB1224 involves 10 changes, one of which requires the Attorney General’s Office to provide the state’s education department information on what constitutes a public record. The proposed policy appears geared toward preventing a data breach at the Department of Education, which erroneously sent records to the Arizona Capitol Times without properly redacting some private information. 

The rest of Allen’s amendment seeks to fulfill a promise by Republicans, including herself, to remove oversight of the ESA program from the department after Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, was sworn into office last year. 

That threat, verbal or otherwise, originally suggested giving complete oversight to the State Treasurer’s Office under Kimberly Yee, a Republican. 

Allen’s amendment would instead give partial oversight to the State Board of Education, while the Department of Education would still control some aspects of the ESA program. 

Gov. Doug Ducey, who asked Allen to sponsor this effort during his State of the State address in January, appoints members to the Board of Education. 

Patrick Ptak, the governor’s spokesman, said the Governor’s Office is aware of the proposed amendments and is part of the discussion.

“We support [the changes],” Ptak said. “It makes good reforms and changes that will help improve the program and all Arizona kids who benefit.” 

Alicia Williams, the State Board’s executive director, said she is not aware of the proposed changes that would give her office partial oversight of the ESA program. 

Under her amendment, the Board would handle all appeals processes, adopt administrative policies and report fraudulent spending. 

A department audit of the ESA program revealed the unintentional misspending of funds on the Navajo Nation in 2019. 

Brophy McGee’s proposed amendment mostly focuses on how the department shall appropriate $1 million in funding. Instead of letting the department determine where the money goes, the amendment allocates $276,000 for five full-time positions specifically for a call center, which would help with the long wait times ESA parents have experienced; $388,000 goes toward six full-time positions as case managers; and, $136,000 would to two full-time positions for accounting staff. 

The remaining $200,000 would be used for areas other than hiring staffers for the department, with $150,000 appropriated to conduct seminars and training for staff positions, as well as community outreach, while the final $50,000 would go to the Board of Education to use on legal services relating to appeals that the Attorney General’s Office would be involved in.

Brophy McGee’s also proposes that the department establish a process to end students’ accounts if that family fails to renew the contract for three consecutive years. Whatever balance remains in the account at the time would then be transferred back into the state’s general fund. 

An original amendment that Brophy McGee modified this morning would impose rules pertaining specifically to some accounts that have accrued high balances

After Save Our Schools Arizona announced today a new ballot initiative with similar language, Brophy McGee corrected her amendment to remove those clauses. 

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