A bill that would expand reporting requirements for the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program narrowly passed the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 15.
The State Board of Education already requires the Department of Education to provide an extensive quarterly report.
Senate Bill 1706, approved by a 4-3 vote, would codify the existing rules, add additional data requirements and direct the department to distribute the report to the governor, the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House, the secretary of state and the public.
Sponsor of the bill, Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said she wants to see further accountability and transparency as the ESA program continues to outpace initial cost projections by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
“This bill requires significantly less reporting than charter schools or public district schools,” Marsh said. “This program is growing very, very fast. I think we need to have some handle on exactly what’s going on.”
The current requirements under the state board cover the number of pending, approved and denied ESA applications, the number of students enrolled, broken down by eligibility, grade level and associated district or charter school, as well as the annual award associated with each student and parent feedback.
Additions in the legislation include reporting on English language learners, students with individualized education programs or accommodation plans, students who leave a public or charter school and enter the ESA program, and students who left the ESA program.
The legislation would also add the amount of approved expenses, sorted by type of expense and would reveal ESA applicants by self-reported race and ethnicity.
Marsh also wanted to include reporting on household incomes but said she would be introducing a floor amendment to remove the provision, citing blowback and anxiety from ESA parents.
Christine Accurso, executive director of the ESA program, sorted out the overlapping requirements and provided feedback on what could easily, and not so easily, be incorporated into the report.
She said the department had just figured out how to track how many students are leaving public schools for the ESA program. And she would easily be able to include the number of students leaving the ESA program, as well.
Two other provisions, approved expenses sorted by type and further reporting on students with disabilities, would require additional staff, according to Accurso.
The Department of Education currently has 17 ESA employees, though it is intended to have 52. The current budget has enough funding to hire 43 more employees, and Accurso said it’s a priority to fill the vacancies.
Four of the data points, English language learners, breakdowns on race and ethnicity and household income, and the percentage of qualified schools receiving ESA funds, have no data available.
Accurso clarified ESA funding goes to parents, not directly to schools. But Marsh’s push to see what percentage of schools are receiving ESA funds is warranted, especially as private schools in the state start to pop up with ESAs at the forefront of their financial aid pages.
Great Hearts Charter Schools, a charter chain with locations spanning Arizona, Louisiana, Florida and Texas, is inching into the private sector in Arizona.
The organization is launching Great Hearts Christos, three new private Christian schools slotted to open in Phoenix in the fall.
Maria Baier, vice president of external affairs at Great Hearts Charter Schools, said the schools will be geared toward low-income families.
“We really want to make sure that we create this opportunity for some of the low-income neighborhoods that don’t have access to private Christian schools generally,” Baier said.
Opponents of universal ESAs continue to raise concerns about an influx of private schools using and relying on public dollars to fund tuition, especially as the program keeps blowing cost expectations out of the water.
“There’s no cap, there’s no limit, there’s no specific budget for ESAs,” Rebecca Gau, executive director of Stand for Children said. “The ESA formula has absolutely no transparency and no guardrails.”
Marsh’s first attempt to introduce further accountability measures passed through committee, with chair Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, voting to move it forward. He said he did not support its ultimate passage though.