2019: Moments of bipartisanship mixed with rough politics

Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, in this screenshot testifies February 20 before the House Judiciary Committee about her bill to repeal an abortion law. The committee’s chairman, Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, refused her request to hold the bill and made a political example of it.
Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, in this screenshot testifies February 20 before the House Judiciary Committee about her bill to repeal an abortion law. The committee’s chairman, Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, refused her request to hold the bill and made a political example of it.

The highs and lows of the 2019 legislative session can be measured by how well legislators worked together with the smallest of margins.

Republicans in both chambers could have accomplished everything that needed a simple majority vote without the help of a single Democrat – save for a few holdouts as seen during budget negotiations – but that’s not how the session went.

At the highest, the Legislature voted unanimously 108 times in the House (when all members voted) and 178 times in the Senate. At the lowest, the House voted 64 times down party lines; the Senate 22 times. But there were also lows where bills did not make it past a committee hearing.

On February 20, Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, was used by the Republicans as an example of what can happen when ideas aren’t fully fleshed out.

The Phoenix Democrat introduced legislation that would repeal a law that requires a doctor to ensure all available means and medical skills are deployed to promote, preserve and maintain the fetus’ life if the baby is delivered alive during an abortion.

Terán asked the House Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, to hold the bill because she knew it would not have enough votes. Allen denied her request and heard the bill anyway.

Terán introduced the bill for a personal reason – her sister had a miscarriage – and said that Republicans were not looking at this to have a conversation.

“It’s totally political,” she said.

Allen didn’t relent.

“The idea that you drop a bill and never want it to be heard is not lawmaking. It’s politics,” he said.  Nobody voted for it.

The 134-day session was not all ugly, as legislators were able to unanimously vote on a bill regarding empowerment scholarship accounts – one of the most divisive issues.

Several Republicans support an ESA-expansion, while Democrats don’t. Voters overwhelmingly rejected an expansion in 2018, but that didn’t stop Republicans from introducing legislation this year.

No ESA expansion bill came to fruition during the session, but one bill through ups and downs was able to make its way to the governor’s desk.

In the eleventh hour, controversy started brewing as a direct result of an Arizona Department of Education audit into ESAs. The ADE found several families in Window Rock on the Navajo Reservation who were using their approved-ESA vouchers for private schools across the state border in New Mexico, though the school was still on the reservation and only minutes away from the border itself.

Gov. Doug Ducey and Secretary of State Katie Holmes display legislation Ducey signed for Arizona''s Drought Contingency Plan. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Gov. Doug Ducey and Secretary of State Katie Holmes display legislation Ducey signed for Arizona”s Drought Contingency Plan. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

This was mistakenly approved by the previous administration, a spokesman for ADE said at the time, and the ESA director sent letters to the families demanding repayment of the amount used or they would lose voucher access.

Once the Legislature found out, both majority leaders sponsored mirror bills to fix the issue. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman did not work with Rep. Warren Petersen or Sen. Rick Gray directly, but had discussed potential solutions with other legislators – including the three who represent the Navajo Nation in Legislative District 7.

Once a solution was reached, one that did not involve a voucher expansion, both the House and Senate approved the measure unanimously, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed it at the deadline, vowing to make it part of his agenda next session to allow Native American students to spend public monies outside the state’s borders.

The ESA bill was one of the final decisions Ducey made during the session, which means the session began and ended with immense bipartisan supported bills.

The first piece of legislation Ducey signed this session was the Drought Contingency Plan. There were a few bumps in the road, even post-signing, but the state was able to make its first DCP deadline with all but three legislators voting “aye.” The three Democratic senators voted against it because they thought the drought plan didn’t adequately address the issues of water scarcity and conservation.

The Legislature completed its two bills in time to meet federal standards, except it wasn’t good enough.

On January 31, the day Ducey signed the measures, he was with Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and members of the Legislature and boasted about the historic moment.

“We did it by bringing everyone to the table, putting party labels aside and placing Arizona first,” he said. “The Drought Contingency Plan is a historic, bipartisan achievement.”

Other instances of highs and lows involved a religious mocking and a heartwarming moment in the final minutes before sine die.

Rep. Athena Salman, a known atheist, was in charge of delivering the opening prayer and chose to do so about nature. Rep. John Kavanagh, the following day, decided to introduce his “guest” in the gallery – it was God, and that led to a protest from Salman.

The final moments of the session did involve an uplifting situation in which Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix was physically lifted, in her wheelchair, onto the speaker dais. All other 59 representatives were able to sit in the chair all year, but not Longdon who has pushed for accessibility even before she was elected.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers then pulled out a measuring tape and vowed to fix this problem for next session.

“We can do this,” he said.

Arizona interest in anti-mask school vouchers outpaces funds

Angela Black, right, with her brother Luke Black at their home, pose for a photo Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Mesa, Ariz. The students, a third grader and kindergartner, attend a school where mask wearing is optional. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Angela Black, right, with her brother Luke Black at their home, pose for a photo Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Mesa, Ariz. The students, a third grader and kindergartner, attend a school where mask wearing is optional. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

A program announced by Arizona’s Republican governor last month to give private school vouchers to parents who object to campus mask requirements has seen applications surge, with twice as many either started or completed than can be funded with the $10 million in federal coronavirus relief earmarked for the plan. 

And Republican lawmakers who back expansion of the state’s existing voucher program doubt any students who receive the grants will be forced back into public schools when the federal cash is exhausted. Opponents of the school voucher program suspect that is highly likely. 

The program Gov. Doug Ducey created will give $7,000 per school year to each student who enrolled in a public school with either mask requirements or that requires unvaccinated children exposed to the virus to quarantine or isolate differently than vaccinated children. Applicants can earn up to 350% of the federal poverty level, which equals $92,750 for a family of four. They can use the money for private school tuition, tutoring or other costs.  

The governor’s education policy adviser said last week that applications for 454 children had been completed and another 2,255 started in the first 13 days the application window was open and 69 approved.  

If all the current applications are completed and funded, the governor would need to pump another $10 million into the program, and would consider doing so, said Kaitlin Harrier, the education policy adviser. 

“It’s important that we, at every step, no matter what’s happening, no matter what stage of the pandemic we’re in, we give parents options,” Harrier said. 

The program uses some of the federal pandemic school funding directly controlled by Ducey, who signed legislation banning masks or vaccine mandates in schools in June that takes effect on Sept. 29.  

Opponents of mandated vaccines and masks, including several Republicans vying to replace Ducey in 2022 when he must leave office, called for a new voucher program after some schools kept mask mandates in place despite the new law amid a statewide surge in Covid cases. They were inspired by a similar push by GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to give vouchers to students whose parents oppose school mask mandates. 

Ducey is a major supporter of “school choice” — a blanket term for allowing parents to use money that would normally go to their public school for private school tuition or other education costs. He has continued supporting voucher expansions despite voters soundly rejecting a 2017 universal school voucher law by a 2 to 1 vote the following year. Arizona voters can temporarily block laws enacted by the Legislature by gathering signatures, and if voters ultimately oppose the measure it is repealed. 

Ducey and Republicans who back school vouchers have continued to expand the voucher program, although another major expansion this year was sharply scaled backed amid opposition from a handful of Arizona House Republicans.  

Sharon Kirsch, spokeswoman for the grassroots group of educators and parents that organized the referendum, Save Our Schools Arizona, said she is curious what kind of outreach the governor has done to promote the programs and just who is applying. 

“Of course we have concerns, of course we know that this will be a permanent expansion,” Kirsch said Friday. “They continue to try to find ways to expand — they’re relentless about that.” 

The governor’s office was unable to immediately provide any breakdown on the applicants, either their demographics or where they live. 

Republican Rep. John Kavanagh, who chairs the House appropriations committee and like many in his caucus backs school vouchers, said he hopes those awarded grants will never be forced back into a public school. 

“I would hope that we would use state money and that we could let them remain in the schools that they’ve migrated to,” Kavanagh said. “I don’t think people would be upset if we don’t rip kids out of the new schools that they’ve been attending.” 

Before this year’s scaled-back expansion, the Arizona Department of Education says about 250,000 students were eligible, but only about 10,000 students are getting vouchers, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. They cost the state about $145 million a year. More than half goes to disabled students, the original group intended to benefit from the program when it was created in 2011. 

The governor’s office said the new program will help parents who object to Covid restrictions imposed by schools, during and after the pandemic. 

“It’s certainly my hope that parents will have options, no matter where their home school is and regardless of this program,” Harrier said. “And that we would have a school choice environment that would transcend above all of this, and provide maximum choice.” 


Arizona offers blueprint for parental empowerment

The reverberations are echoing across Arizona, and across the whole nation – the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office announced last week that teachers unions’ last-ditch effort to overturn the state’s landmark universal school choice reform has failed. Now, America can look to Arizona’s first-in-the-nation model of a groundbreaking, statewide expansion of school choice to any family that wants it.

Special interests fell well short of the requisite 118,823 valid signatures needed to challenge the expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to every student in the state. While the Secretary of State’s Office has yet to release a final signature count, the Goldwater Institute and the Center for Arizona Policy Action revealed that they only submitted 88,866 signatures, despite their false claims last month that they had turned in over 141,000.

Matt Beienburg

Entrenched government interests felt threatened by parental empowerment, and they tried to maintain the status quo by fighting school choice with falsehoods and half-truths. But Arizonans didn’t fall for it. Instead, parents rallied to urge their fellow citizens to decline to sign the anti-parental rights group’s petition. And in so doing, they showed the rest of the nation that parents’ demands for school choice can prevail over the union spin machine.

The results are more than just a tremendous signature shortfall – they’re a resounding vindication of families who are clamoring for choice in education.

They’re a loud message from parents weary of a one-size-fits-all education system, who want to be able to choose the education option that best meets their child’s unique needs, regardless of zip code.

They’re a crystal-clear repudiation of anti-parent, anti-school choice activists who claim it’s more appropriate for bureaucrats to make choices about children’s schooling than families themselves.

Because it’s parents, not bureaucrats, who are best equipped to direct our children’s educational path — and that’s why the universal school choice reform puts families’ needs first. Under the most expansive school choice program in the nation, families who wish to opt out of their local public school will receive nearly $7,000 per year per child for private school, home-based education, “learning pods,” tutoring, or any other kinds of educational service that would best fit their students’ unique needs.

History has already shown the nation that ESAs — which the Goldwater Institute first created in Arizona more than a decade ago — have been hugely successful in transforming the lives of students and their families. It is no surprise that demand for the program has steadily grown, with enrollment rising from just 100 children in 2011 to over 11,000 earlier this year. Thanks to HB2853, sponsored by Rep. Ben Toma, every Arizona child will now be eligible.

Arizona’s ESA program has been particularly beneficial to those most in need of additional educational options. As a 2019 Goldwater Institute policy report showed, ESA usage has already surged in the most severely economically disadvantaged communities in Arizona. The program’s expansion will now further amplify these opportunities.

Special interests tried to snatch educational opportunities right out of parents’ hands. But families rejected their propaganda, and they gave America a blueprint for how to take charge of their children’s education.

Matt Beienburg is director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute. He also serves as director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy. 


Big ideas, big plans that didn’t make it into legislation

From left, Paul Boyer and Anthony Kern.
From left, Paul Boyer and Anthony Kern.

In a legislative session that saw a record amount of bills filed in both chambers, some measures promised before or even during the session never saw the light of day.

Efforts to allow county boards of supervisors capability to successfully remove the county treasurer or assessor, remove oversight of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program from the Department of Education in favor of the Treasurer’s Office, and even a ballot referral to legalize adult-use marijuana rather than the initiative that would accomplish the same feat all never received a sponsor.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, said in October that he would introduce a measure allowing boards of supervisors to remove by a two-thirds vote an elected county assessor (and treasurer) who are under criminal indictment, which came in light of the indictment of former Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen that same month.

Kern said he didn’t file it after all because he didn’t want to rush things and it didn’t seem like a necessary bill once Petersen resigned.

The current law only allows a board of supervisors to suspend those two elected positions for up to a period of 120 days and makes things complicated in terms of an expulsion.

Kern’s seatmate in the upper chamber, Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, did not fulfill his promise to sponsor an effort that would create a pay cap for city employees. In what started as an announcement on Twitter over frustrations with his own city government resulted in nothing.

Prior to the start of the legislative session, Boyer said he wanted to limit nearly all city employees from earning more than the governor, whose salary is $95,000. Glendale City Manager Kevin Phelps currently makes $229,500, according to The Arizona Republic’s salary database, which is already nearly 2.5 times the limit Boyer wants to install.

A beef with Phelps is a prime reason Boyer planned to introduce this legislation in the first place. He and Phelps didn’t see eye to eye when it came to covering cancer treatment for firefighters in the city, a fight Boyer has been passionate about for years.

“I don’t think anybody could say with a straight face that bureaucrats who are systematically not following the law deserve to get paid more than the governor,” Boyer said at the time.

In that same chamber, Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, told her colleagues on the floor she had concerns over how the Arizona Department of Education was running the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Not a new fight by any means, but this latest blow was a direct result of the department mistakenly providing records that were not properly redacted.

Allen said early in the session that the state Treasurer’s Office under Republican Kimberly Yee should have oversight of the ESA program. Neither Allen nor any other legislator sponsored an effort to give the Treasurer’s Office control, but on February 26. Allen amended her ESA bill to give partial oversight of the program to the State Board of Education.

A different promise made before the session began, but not from a lawmaker, was the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce launching its own attempt to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana, with plans to have the Legislature send it to the ballot.

It was an idea many in the marijuana industry didn’t take seriously when it was announced since there did not seem to be an appetite to have lawmakers legalize marijuana, let alone have them send it to the ballot where it would be voter protected, a concern legislators have expressed many times.

With its close ties to lobbyist Brett Mecum, all eyes shifted over to Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, to sponsor the referendum, since Mecum pushed Gowan’s marijuana testing bill in 2019.

But it didn’t receive a green light.

Both sides of school choice debate lose sight of best interest for kids


The political fight over School Choice – Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts seem to never end. The latest battle continues over a small group of Navajo children, who needed the Education Savings Accounts to attend a school in New Mexico just over the Arizona state line.

The unfortunate component in all of this dispute is no one is considering what is in the best interest of the children. Ideological groups on both sides keep making the Navajo students and ESAs a political battle, which isn’t the intent of why ESAs were implemented.

Do I feel ESAs should be used for programs in Arizona? Yes.

O. Robin Sweet
O. Robin Sweet

But there are always extenuating circumstances like the location of the Navajo Nation compared to the closest private school, which happens to be one-half mile over the Arizona border. There are no private schools any closer than the New Mexico school to their location.

I am no fan of politics. We simply need to come to the realization that we must do what is in the best interest of the children to allow them to attend specialized schools, so that they can become contributing members of society.

Those are what Empowerment Scholarship Accounts were established to do for students at Gateway Academy, and what they are doing.

Our nationally recognized accredited school offers smaller class sizes, specialized curriculums, and unique programming for students with Asperger’s Syndrome and High Functioning Autism.

Many of our students were bullied or got lost in the mix of larger class sizes in public and even traditional private schools. We offer smaller class sizes with a student-to-teacher ratio of 6-to-1 in Lower School, 8-to-1 in Middle School, and 10-to-1 in High School.

Many of students who thrive at Gateway Academy can only afford to attend our innovative private school, because of ESAs. Our families come from every race and socio-economic group. Annual tuition at Gateway is $26,800, and ESAs pay for 100 percent of our tuition, allowing every income family to attend.

We are not about the politics of school choice at Gateway Academy. We are about helping our “Twice Exceptional” students find a school where they can thrive.

We all need to remember the original intent of Arizona’s ESA program was designed to help cover the education costs for children with disabilities, foster kids, and Native American, and active-duty military families.

Helping those families and children should not be controversial nor political.

Robin Sweet is CEO and executive director at Gateway Academy.

Both sides of voucher war prepare for battles after vote

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8, 2018, after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Opponents of Proposition 305 may soon cry victory over its defeat, but the fight over school choice and Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts will not end in November.

The American Federation for Children is officially a “no” on Prop. 305 despite the group’s pro-school choice stance, and Americans for Prosperity won’t be organizing support for the ballot measure.

A no vote will mean the Republican-controlled Legislature’s 2017 expansion of the ESA program will not stand, while a yes vote means it will.

But the group responsible for sending the ESA expansion to the ballot, Save Our Schools Arizona, is not taking the vote for granted, nor preparing to wind down after November.

SOS Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker said the dwindling support for Prop. 305 does not signal a change of heart by pro-voucher groups. Rather it tells her that they are willing to take a loss this time and try again during the 2019 legislative session.

So she wants to send a message in the November 6 general election – that even Arizona, a school choice pioneer, will reject the expansion of school vouchers.

“We don’t just want Prop. 305 to lose. We want it to go down in flames,” she said.

Arizona’s empowerment scholarship account program pays parents or guardians 90 percent of the money that would have gone to a student’s public school. The money can be spent on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum. The program began in 2011 for only special needs students and has grown to allow an array of students, such as ones from failing schools and children whose parents are in the military.

The Legislature in 2017 expanded the program to allow for all Arizona students to be eligible, but capped the program’s enrollment at about 30,000 by the 2022-2023 school year.  

The fate of Prop. 305 may be mere speculation at this point, but that isn’t stopping advocates and opponents from contemplating what should come next.

Penich-Thacker said SOS Arizona has discussed ideas for an education funding mechanism that could rally bipartisan support.

That mechanism would have to ensure the funding it generates is not then drained by programs like ESAs, though.

“Coming up with a great education funding mechanism is all fine and well,” she said. “But if we’re going to be poking holes in that bucket and draining it right out through unregulated ESAs and STOs, what’s it for?”

She said SOS Arizona has also had preliminary conversations about possibly running or supporting a bill to address accountability and what they see as other shortcomings of the ESA program.

But Penich-Thacker knows they’re not the only ones likely preparing for another shot.

“This is one battle that they’re willing to lose because they’ll be back in January with a different bill number but with the same goal of unregulated, universal ESA voucher expansion,” she said.

There is hope for a compromise, but she’s not so sure if the pro-voucher crowd is on the same page.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said he does not see the point of declaring a position on Prop. 305.

He said there will always be a robust conversation around school choice at the Legislature, and ESAs are part of that no matter what happens with Prop. 305.

He has expressed trepidation over the expansion as written before, particularly because the law and it’s cap of 30,000 students would be protected under the Voter Protection Act. But he can see both sides of the dilemma for school choice advocates like himself.

In the future, he said more consideration could be given to specific carve outs for certain student populations or which enrollment cap may be more “legitimate.”

Conservative groups plan to sue ADE over voucher funds

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. Hoffman is one of the first Democrats elected to statewide office in more than 10 years and Republicans have been demonizing her politically. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. Hoffman is one of the first Democrats elected to statewide office in more than 10 years and Republicans have been demonizing her politically. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE

Two legal organizations intend to sue the Arizona Department of Education over the state’s school voucher program on behalf of a military parent who claims her family isn’t receiving funds in a timely manner.

The Goldwater Institute and the Liberty Justice Center sent the Arizona Department of Education a notice of claim — a required advisory before suing a government entity — November 12, alleging the department has forced families who should have received state funding to pay out-of-pocket for education expenses.

“There are more than 120 families that have not received these funds in violation of their ESA contracts,” the claim alleges. 

It’s the latest in a series of attacks from conservative organizations on the department’s handling of the legislatively mandated Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, which is designed to allow parents or guardians to use taxpayer money that would have gone to a student’s public school on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum.

The ESA program began specifically for special needs students, and has since grown to allow an array of students – including those who attended failing schools and children whose parents are in the military. About 6,500 students currently use the program and receive an average of about $5,000 to $6,000 annually. 

The parent at the center of the planned lawsuit, referred to as K.K. in the notice of claim, is a military member. According to the notice, she was supposed to receive funding for the second quarter of the 2019-20 school year by October 30, but still did not have the money by November 12, the day the claim was filed.

Department spokesman Richie Taylor said the family in question received its second quarter disbursement of $1,939.20 on November 5, several days after the department was supposed to distribute funds but a full week before the notice of claim. ADE provided Arizona Capitol Times with mostly redacted documentation showing the family received its second quarter funding just after midnight on November 5, and then made a transaction several hours later – as well as another purchase on November 6.

The delay resulted from the parent submitting an expense report with an error, which meant it needed to be resubmitted, Taylor said. 

“Had the Goldwater Institute or Liberty Justice Center called instead of sending out a press release and filing a notice of claim, they would have known,” he said. 

Daniel Suhr, senior associate attorney at Liberty Justice Center, said the center expects the department to make deposits as it clears the backlog of receipts, but the systemic problem exists.

“At least 120 families have reached out to say the department failed to provide the funds critical to their children’s educational services,” Suhr said.

The bottom line is the department violated the law and its contract, he said.

These families facing the worry and financial burden of the department’s delay should not be required to enlist attorneys to call the department and negotiate for money they are entitled to,” Suhr said.

This is not the first time Kathy Hoffman, the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, and her department have been criticized for not meeting specific deadlines. The Arizona chapter of the American Federation for Children, a national school choice organization, began filming and releasing monthly videos featuring families that have had problems with the ESA program in May. 

Hoffman and department staff have said the program cannot operate to its full extent without access to the full funds allowed. State law allows for up to 4% of the $91 million 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. 

The department requested $1.35 million this fall to add 20 employees to its ESA oversight unit, which now has 13 positions who handle voucher applications, answer parent questions and review expenses.

Before considering the request, lawmakers ordered the state auditor to investigate how the department spends the $1.25 million it currently receives. That audit is expected to be completed by April 10. 

The Goldwater Institute could be reached for comment.

Democrat with little political experience becomes most effective in 2019

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman asked the House Education Committee in February to repeal laws that govern how homosexuality can and cannot be taught in high school. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman asked the House Education Committee in February to repeal laws that govern how homosexuality can and cannot be taught in high school. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES

Democrats won big at the ballot box in 2018 with gains in the state House, two statewide offices and a U.S. Senate seat.

But even with the 17-13 split in the Senate, the 31-29 split in the House, the Democrat who accomplished the most during the First Regular Session of the 54th Legislature is the one who was criticized for her lack of political experience during the campaign – and she wasn’t even a lawmaker.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman accomplished a majority of her legislative agenda and was directly responsible for Gov. Doug Ducey signing three bills into law; more than any other Democrat in the House or Senate. Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, got two bills signed into law, while eight other Democrats each got a single bill passed and signed.

Hoffman said her first session exceeded her expectations and credits her new policy team for making that possible.

“We got more done than expected. … Overall we were really proud,” she said.

Stefan Swiat, Hoffman’s spokesman, said her approach to advancing departmental initiatives is the biggest difference he can think of compared to Superintendent Diane Douglas, his former boss.

“Superintendent Hoffman prefers to create task forces and invite stakeholders affected by the program or policy to the table to govern by consensus,” he said, giving as an example the handling of the menu of achievement tests the State Board of Education was charged with selecting. “Stakeholders from all sides of the political spectrum all weighed in on how to proceed before the superintendent brought a solution to the State Board.”

He said in contrast, when Douglas, a Republican, felt passionately about an issue she would proceed based on her beliefs, even if there wasn’t a consensus from stakeholders.

Hoffman highlighted her biggest accomplishment as the repeal of a 1991 law barring the promotion of a homosexual lifestyle and safe homosexual sex in mandated HIV and AIDS education in public schools, known as the “no promo homo” law.

“I would not have predicted that would pass so quickly,” she said adding that LGBTQ issues are not as controversial as they once were.

She said the Legislature likely balked at repealing this in recent sessions because it prevented legislators from having to vote on it.

“They may not support the issues, but they didn’t want to vote against something in the best interest of kids.”

Even though her support was crucial in the repeal, Hoffman does not take sole credit. She said this wouldn’t have happened without the help of Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who made it known to lawmakers that he would not defend a legal challenge to the law filed two weeks before the April 11 vote to repeal it.

“I helped propel it forward and then [Brnovich] helped propel it forward. It was a snowball effect that got it rolling in Lege.” she said.

Hoffman addressed this issue as a top concern in her State of Education speech to the House Education Committee in early February and it got the immediate attention of Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge.

Shope credited Hoffman’s speech as the reason he became aware of the law that needed to be repealed, so he sponsored a floor amendment to the only education bill available and it passed 55-5 before the Senate would approve it 19-10.

In addition to the repeal that was years in the making, Hoffman’s support was pivotal in reducing the English Language Learners time block from four to two hours.

Educators have pushed lawmakers for years to revise the mandate, which requires English-learning students to take four hours of English immersion every day, where they are separated from their peers.

Though it wasn’t always pretty, Hoffman was still able to cross party lines to achieve her goals on divisive topics such as a bill that holds harmless some Navajo families in the Window Rock area from reimbursing the state after unintentionally spending their Empowerment Scholarship Account dollars illegally.

Hoffman said she was proud of how it came together in the end. It passed unanimously in both chambers and Ducey signed the bill on June 8.

Working across party lines was a priority for Hoffman coming into the session she said, going as far to figure out who the moderate Republicans are and the legislators on the Education Committees.

“It was strategic,” Hoffman said.

All three of the bills Hoffman pushed to become law had Republican sponsors. The ELL bill had Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, “no promo homo” would not have made it to the floor without an amendment from Shope, and Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, sponsored the ESA bill.

Hoffman said she did not work with Petersen or Sen. Rick Gray – who pushed a mirror bill in the Senate – on the ESA solution for the Navajo students in Window Rock.

After just one session, one where politicos applauded Hoffman for her “upset” wins over her political opponents, she accomplished a lot she set out to do, but she still has three years left.

“There is still more to do,” Hoffman said.

Douglas: Legislature shortchanges school voucher program

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas in her office on Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas in her office on Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas accused Arizona lawmakers of routinely underfunding the Department of Education’s effort to oversee the state’s voucher program, leaving millions of dollars earmarked for administrative costs untouched.

State law dictates how much money is set aside to cover the costs of administering Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, a taxpayer funded program that pays for private and religious school tuition, tutoring and home schooling for certain students.

But it’s the Legislature that has the authority over whether that money is actually spent.

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, according to a memo sent by Douglas to legislative leaders and Gov. Doug Ducey.

Douglas, a Republican who lost her bid for re-election, has presided over ESAs amid news reports of rampant mismanagement and misuse of the now $75 million-plus voucher program.

In one of her final acts as superintendent, Douglas called out the Republican-controlled Legislature for handcuffing her staff’s ability to properly manage the voucher program and hold parents accountable for how scholarships are spent — efforts that could stamp out the very fraud that’s been reported.

“As the duly elected official responsible for the oversight of this program, I refuse to let this disparity be ignored as the efforts of my ESA staff to improve both service to parents and oversight of taxpayer dollars are scrutinized,” Douglas wrote to top Republican lawmakers on December 13.

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said she’s perplexed that the department consistently gets shortchanged amid budget negotiations. Year after year, education officials have told lawmakers they’re understaffed, she said.

“Given what we’ve heard, it has concerned me greatly that there wasn’t more oversight, particularly when you turn around and criticize the department for a lack of oversight,” Brophy McGee said. “I’ve always understood it to be a staffing shortage issue. We already know there are problems with the database. So it has always seemed to me that is something we must shore up so that this relatively new program can show that it’s accountable to the taxpayers who fund it.”

The issue predates Douglas’ time in office. Even under John Huppenthal, a Republican who served as superintendent when lawmakers approved ESAs, the Legislature held back funding from the department.

Meanwhile, dollars earmarked for administrative costs go unspent, and are left to accumulate.

“I would just hate to think in any way, shape or form that it was politics or special interest groups,” Douglas told Arizona Capitol Times on December 20. “But it’s almost hard to not think they’re not playing a role. And to what end?”

Douglas suspects the endgame is the privatization of ESA administration, removing the program from the department’s oversight entirely. Associate Superintendent Charles Tack, who oversees the ESA program at the department, added that ESA advocates don’t trust the department to manage the program according to their vision.

Those advocates had the ear of like-minded legislators, he said.

“They were not convinced that giving our department more money would be beneficial to the program,” he said. “To me, that’s extraordinarily counter-intuitive.”

Even when legislators voted to pass a bill expanding the program in 2017 – an effort that ultimately died with the failure of Proposition 305 in November – Douglas alleges they have been unwilling to ensure the Department of Education can keep up with growth.

State law dictates that 5 percent of the total funding for empowerment scholarship accounts are earmarked for the Department of Education and the state Treasurer’s Office to cover the costs of administering the program.

Of that, 1 percent is earmarked for the treasury, while the remaining 4 percent is dedicated for the Department of Education.

But state law also states those dollars are subject to legislative appropriation. And since the inception of empowerment scholarship accounts in 2011, the Legislature has authorized only a fraction of what’s earmarked for administrative costs.

For example, roughly $3.8 million is earmarked for ESA administrative costs in fiscal year 2019. That’s 5 percent of the estimated $75.9 million in funding for ESAs.

State law requires 1 percent of those funds to be transferred to the Treasurer’s Office. The remaining 4 percent, roughly $3 million, is set aside for the Department of Education.

The budget approved by lawmakers in May only authorized the Education Department to spend $1.25 million on administrative costs.

Even the Treasurer’s Office got shortchanged. Instead of the $760,000 prescribed by state law, the Legislature only authorized $304,400 for the treasury to spend on administering ESAs.

Douglas previously called attention to the lack of administrative funds made available to her department after an auditor general’s report excoriated her office for its handling of the ESA program.

Her latest memo to top legislative Republicans and Ducey blasted the audit for failing to mention that her office is woefully underfunded. If the audit is meant to help lawmakers understand how administration of ESAs can be improved, “it is, in my opinion, completely injudicious to minimize the fact that the department has not been given spending authority for anywhere near the full 4 percent of administrative funding,” she wrote on December 13.

The Legislature has continued to provide inadequate funding even as enrollment in the ESA program grew year over year, she said.

“I have struggled with this the whole time because clearly it is, for lack of a better term, a pet project of the Republican side of the Legislature, for school choice fans,” Douglas told the Capitol Times. “You would think, as a pet project, they would want it to be absolutely as successful as possible, yet to underfund the administration of it, undermines it.”

In January, the ESA program will no longer be Douglas’ responsibility. She lost her re-election bid in the August primary to Republican challenger Frank Riggs, and Riggs went on to lose to the incoming superintendent, Democrat Kathy Hoffman.

Ducey says voucher fix is high priority next year

Gov. Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey wants to expand Arizona’s voucher program to allow Native American students to spend public monies outside the state’s borders.

In a letter explaining his decision to sign HB2578, a bill that holds harmless some Navajo families in the Window Rock area from reimbursing the state after spending their Empowerment Scholarship Account dollars illegally, Ducey wrote that expanding the ability for those parents to spend those dollars outside Arizona will be his first legislative priority in 2020.

The families had used those voucher dollars to pay tuition at schools across the Arizona border at a New Mexico private school, a violation of the ESA law.

HB2758 was specifically tailored to ensure that those students who attended New Mexico schools within two miles of the border could continue their education in New Mexico for one more school year, and aren’t required to repay the Department of Education for the illegally spent money. But under the legislation, after July 1, 2020, they’ll need to find a new school in Arizona.

Ducey decried the temporary nature of the fix in a signing letter attached to the bill.

“This bill is only a temporary remedy for the children and families who currently participate in the scholarship program. The impacted children will be allowed to attend a school that has served them well for years for just one more school year – all the time knowing that they will not be able to continue, unless a permanent solution is enacted,” Ducey wrote.

“To that end, I look forward to signing permanent legislation early in the next legislative session that will provide certainty and stability to these children, and for all of the Arizona children living in the Navajo Nation.”

The governor’s position on ESAs is music to the ears of some Republican lawmakers who also denounced the temporary nature of the legislative compromise they reached with Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman to address the ESA issue for Navajo families.

During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on SB1545, an identical bill to HB2758, Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray lamented that officials didn’t simply change the law retroactively to expand how ESA dollars can be spent.

“Oddly enough, there seemed to be less appetite for protecting these kids in the long run,” said Gray, R-Sun City West. “They’ll at least have to be in a situation where they won’t have to pay thousands of dollars back. The sad part for me is they’ll be forced to go to schools that are Ds and Fs.”

Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, pressed Rep. Arlando Teller, who represents the Navajo families in Legislative District 7, on whether he’d support changing the law to do just that: “Would you be supportive of letting parents and kids choose which schools they go to?”

Teller, D-Chinle, replied that he wants to “revisit and adhere to the original spirit and intent of the ESA program.”

Livingston later said he “would encourage the membership to make these fixes permanent… I think as a long-term fix, it’s a wonderful fix.”

Richie Taylor, a spokesman for Hoffman, said the superintendent’s office is not surprised by Ducey’s position.

“It clearly shows they’re going to push for more ESA expansion bills next year,” Taylor said.

In negotiations with GOP lawmakers like Gray and Rep. Warren Petersen, who were pushing for a permanent fix for Navajo families, Taylor said Hoffman made clear that “a permanent change was expansion, and we’re against expansions.” He said that while some Republicans may have been pushing for a permanent fix, the political reality was they didn’t have the votes to pass it.

As for how Hoffman will tackle the issue going forward, Taylor said they’re doing their research.

“Clearly there’s a need for those students in that part of the state to have options when they’re in failing schools,” Taylor said, though not all were from failing schools. They were afforded ESA access by nature of living on the Navajo reservation, unlike other Arizona students who qualify for the voucher program because of the quality of schools in their district.

However, Taylor said Hoffman is not in favor of state money being spent at out-of-state schools, though how she reacts to Ducey-backed legislation will depend on how wide-ranging it is.

“We would be wary of [making the change permanent] because if you allow some students to go out of state, you’re opening the door to other students going out of state,” Taylor said. “It just seems silly to me that Arizonans would want their taxpayer money to go to a private school in another state.”

Ducey won’t commit to more funds for school voucher program


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.”

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

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.

In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Kathy Hoffman, a public school speech therapist, is a Democratic candidate running for superintendent of public education, in Phoenix. Hoffman is running against three-term California congressman Frank Riggs, the founding president of an online charter school. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Kathy Hoffman (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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. 

Education Department keeps children from education they deserve


I am the mother of four children, two of whom participate in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. That means I am one of nearly 7,000 parents whose personal information was inadvertently disclosed by the Arizona Department of Education. And because of the department’s utter failure to properly manage this program, my children and thousands of children across the state are not getting the education they deserve.

I didn’t make the choice to enroll my children in the ESA program lightly, but the public school system simply could not meet my children’s special needs, and the ESA program empowered me to customize an education that addresses their individual circumstances. The results have been nothing short of amazing.

Kayla Svedin
Kayla Svedin

Recently, however, the department’s mismanagement has made it increasingly difficult to navigate the ESA program, a program that has been such a godsend to my children. In fact, keeping up with the department’s increasingly arbitrary and rapidly changing rules has become so difficult that last month, I joined a group of mothers in filing a lawsuit against the department.

That was before news broke that the department distributed my personal and financial information (including the specific amount of money in my children’s ESA accounts), and that of all other ESA participants, to the public and to anti-school-choice activists.

ESA parents learned about the data breach not from the department itself but from the media. Only after families read about it in the news did the department admit that it had given our names, email addresses, and our children’s private disability categories to members of the public. It’s offensive and frustrating that department officials didn’t consider the violation of our federally protected privacy rights important enough to warrant anything more than a dismissive email a day after the breach had already been splattered all over the news.

The department’s blunder is especially worrisome because our sensitive information has made its way into the hands of Save Our Schools, a group that is openly antagonistic to the ESA program. Thanks to the department’s mismanagement, ESA opponents now know exactly whom to target.

The department’s breach of our personal information is only one example of the many ways it has harmed ESA families and our vulnerable children. Its arbitrary handling of the program has also resulted in an endless and nonsensical blizzard of paperwork for parents. It requires them to submit complicated expense reports and then withholds payments until it finally gets around to approving them. And expenditures that are approved for some parents are denied for others, often for the same purchase and sometimes even within the same family.

Department bureaucrats can deny any educational expenditure at will and withhold funding for simple but non-fraudulent errors by parents or even for mathematical errors by department administrators themselves. Administrators then freeze our accounts until we explain basic math to them or why our expenditures are allowed, which can take days, since the department refuses to provide adequate and consistent answers by email. Parents have learned never to call on the phone, since the department typically places our calls on hold for hours at a time and also refuses to honor any approvals for expenditures that it gives us over the phone. It’s unclear from one month to the next, sometimes from one day to the next, what the department will permit or forbid –especially since it refuses to communicate clearly with parents – and that means we often receive our children’s ESA funds days, weeks, or months late. That forces those of us who can to either pay out of pocket or to withdraw our children from the tutoring and therapeutic services they need.

Our children don’t deserve any of this. That’s why we sued the department. We’re all just trying to use the program to do what’s best for our kids. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get the state’s educators to obey the law and do right by Arizona children. The ESA program was designed to supplement the charter and public school systems so that every child can succeed, even children whose unique limitations prevent them from succeeding in a neurotypical, one-size-fits-all environment. But the department’s systematic and egregious mismanagement of the program shows a basic contempt for the best interests of the children this program was designed to help.

It’s time to knock it off and do what the ESA program was created to do – provide each child with a real chance at educational success. It’s time to stop bullying the families who participate. And it’s time to do what’s right for our kids.

Kayla Svedin is a Phoenix mother whose children use an Empowerment Scholarship Account.

Education department reverses course, grants military family voucher

Jace Pennington and his stepmother Saquawia Pennington. PHOTO COURTESY AMERICAN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN
Jace Pennington and his stepmother Saquawia Pennington. PHOTO COURTESY AMERICAN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN

A 5-year-old Sierra Vista boy denied an Empowerment Scholarship Account and featured in a video posted over the weekend by a school choice organization will get state help paying for private school this fall. 

Children of active-duty military members can qualify for an ESA, but the Arizona Department of Education initially denied Jace Pennington’s application because his stepmother, not a biological parent, is in the Army. 

The department reversed its decision and approved the boy’s application June 28, spokesman Stefan Swiat said, but it didn’t inform the family until July 1, two days after the American Federation for Children posted a seven-minute video about the family that criticized the department.

The video was reminiscent of a dispute that came after the group produced a similar video about a few Navajo families who were told in May that they’d have to repay ESA money they spent at an out-of-state private school in New Mexico.

“In this case we have a special-interest group jumping the gun and creating a video instead of letting due process take effect,” Swiat said. “They didn’t get their acceptance before the video, but we were approving the student on [June 28].”

Swiat placed the blame for the policy that required department staff to reject Pennington’s application on an in-house legal counsel who was with the department during former Superintendent Diane Douglas’ tenure. 

Students can qualify for the ESA program for a host of reasons, including having a disability, attending a D- or F-rated public school, having a sibling who is a current or previous ESA recipient, or being the child of a parent who is on active duty in the military, was killed in the line of duty or is legally blind or deaf. 

Until July 2, a description of eligibility requirements on the department’s website stipulated that students did not qualify if their stepparents were active-duty military members or died in the line of duty. A review of older versions of that web page saved via the Wayback Machine Internet Archive shows that similar, though not identical, language was on the site during Douglas’s term. 

Staff from the Legislative Council and the Attorney General’s Office said the department was incorrectly interpreting state statute, which states simply that “a child of a parent who is a member of the armed forces of the United States and who is on active duty or was killed in the line of duty” can be eligible.

Under advice from the Attorney General’s Office, department staff decided against automatically rejecting stepparents who apply, Swiat said.

“When we see an issue where the stepparent helps the student apply for an ESA, we just require more documentation and more explanation,” he said. “That’s just being a good steward of taxpayer dollars.”  

Joshua Pennington, Jace’s father, said he didn’t know anything about the department re-evaluating his son’s application until he got a phone call July 1. After receiving a denial letter last week, Pennington called former lawmaker Steve Smith, now the state director for the American Federation for Children, to ask for help.

The American Federation for Children, which supports school choice and backed the state’s unsuccessful attempt to expand ESAs, shot a video similar to one it created about Navajo families who were asked to repay ESA funds they spent at an out-of-state school. GOP lawmakers and state and national activists jumped on it and shared the video with outraged commentary.

Smith said the American Federation for Children chose to release a video instead of helping the Penningtons work with the department because the group was unsuccessful in negotiating quietly with the department on behalf of Navajo students before it made its last video.

But Richie Taylor, the communications director for Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, said Smith’s characterization of the organization’s communication with the department on behalf of the Navajo students isn’t entirely accurate.

“They did reach out to the ESA director with questions about what the law said … they did not reach out to the superintendent or the staff,” Taylor said.

After the American Federation for Children released its May video featuring the Navajo families, it no longer had an open line of communication with the department, Smith said.

“Last time we tried to help solve it internally and they weren’t interested,” he said. “If the only thing we can do is let people know what’s going on, that’s what we’re going to do.”

“I don’t know that there’s an open line of communication anymore,” Smith said. “Last time we tried to help solve it internally and they weren’t interested. If the only thing we can do is let people know what’s going on, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Pennington said he’s glad his son will be able to use a voucher next fall, and that the department listened to his family and reconsidered its decision. But he said the stress his family experienced could easily have been avoided. 

“I just feel like we could have skipped some of these hoops if certain people would have read the law the right way,” Pennington said. 

Clarification: The fourth paragraph has been revised to clarify that a dispute came after Arizona Federation for Children created a video, not as a result of it. 

Empowerment scholarships alternative in ‘covirtual’ reality


The pandemic and social distancing guidelines have drastically impacted and uprooted our daily lives. Students all over the country had to quickly adapt to online learning to finish up the school year. Now, they face the uncertainty of what the fall semester may bring. This uncertainty can be very stressful for students as many don’t know what the “new normal” in school may look like. For parents who just want the best for their children and for their education, not knowing what the upcoming semester may look like can be unnerving.

For parents of students with multiple disabilities, getting their children on the right path to a quality education in the current pandemic is imperative to their overall success. For students who qualify for the Empowerment Scholarship Account, or ESA, this opportunity can help parents to feel confident knowing that their child will be able to attend the school with the program, services, class size, and instructors necessary to help them excel. ESA makes it possible for parents to customize their student’s education that meets each child’s exclusive needs.

As students with multiple disabilities have unique needs that sometimes cannot be met in a traditional school setting, ESA provides the ability for these students to access the resources to attend a school that is built to meet their individual needs. Considering the uncertainties of COVID-19, many schools are adapting to maintain social distancing standards – these specialized schools are making adjustments to its curriculum and classroom settings that are specifically tailored to suit students with multiple disabilities. With ESA funds, the flexibility to keep students at home and still meet their educational goals is possible. This can be achieved by utilizing therapists and private tutors.

Travis Harris
Travis Harris

Amid the pandemic, a big priority for many parents may be seeking a private school for the purpose of having a smaller class size. With these smaller classes, social distancing standards are able to be upheld easier and more efficiently, as well as the added benefit of students having a quality one-on-one experience with their teacher. Fortunately, Arizona has seen massive growth in the number of private schools that cater to the needs of learners of all abilities. Students deserve the best education catered to their needs despite your income or school district you live in.

Of course, any big decision has a number of pros and cons associated with it. If a parent is considering utilizing ESA for private school education for their child, it’s important to look into a number of various factors before picking their next school. This includes analyzing whether or not the school offers related services, such as speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and more, or if it comes at an additional fee. These services are just as important as instruction and often support the student’s academic success.

On top of this, parents should consider whether or not the school has specialized equipment, including desks and adaptive seating, to meet the needs of the specific child. This will be a good indicator as to whether the student will be comfortable in their new school environment.

For ESA students at Gompers Private School, we’ve seen success because of our ability to offer up to one hour a month in related services, including speech, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. Candice Steel, our assistive technology specialist explains, “Those with complex communication needs tend to be dismissed.” With the help of local partners that support our Assistive Technology Department, we are able to ensure accessibility for all of our students. Assistive technology includes devices and equipment that help enable everyone to communicate. There are endless possibilities for not only learning opportunities but also completing day-to-day tasks independently. These combined efforts help to create an ideal curriculum and environment for students with multiple disabilities to succeed.

With students facing the reality of what the new normal may look like in their next classroom setting, ESA can offer educational security for those who qualify. Since 2011, ESA has made exceptional growth with more than 7,500 students and counting. For parents who want to ensure their children can receive the kind of individualized education and care that they need for the years to come, ESA is an opportunity that can be worth looking into.

Travis Harris is director of special education at Gompers Private School in Phoenix.

ESA opponents pick union politics over racial equality


Cries of “structural” and “systemic” racism have swept through our nation. Yet ironically, many of the same voices calling for the dismantling of American institutions—from police to private property—in the name of racial justice, are the very forces most fiercely protecting a status quo that systematically restricts opportunities for students of color. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the debate over educational freedom now raging in Arizona via SB1452. 

Robert Baca
Robert Baca

This bill, which would extend eligibility to the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, or ESA, program to low-income students as well as children of military veterans, has brought powerful testimony from civil rights icons and local leaders like Pastor Drew Anderson.  In Anderson’s words: “I am a registered Democrat and I am a product of school choice. … I’m here today as a concerned African American who pastors a church in south Phoenix. …  I’m praying that this bill gets passed.” Janelle Wood of the Black Mothers Forum likewise announced, “I am in support of school choice. … if you’re talking about ‘saving our schools,’ I need you to first save our children.” 

Children like those in the Baca household — kids who had been attending Arizona public schools until campus closures halted their educational progress. My (Robert’s) son, once an A student, began failing his schoolwork, while his younger sister similarly struggled to grasp material absent (in) in-person explanations from her teacher. So, like many other parents this year, I eventually withdrew them from public school and began homeschooling them on my own.  

 Currently, ESAs are available only to certain Arizona students such as children with special needs and those in D or F-rated public schools. My kids’ public school, Desert Meadows Elementary, is not technically a “failing” school (it most recently earned a “C” grade), so ESAs were not available to my family. But under SB1452, kids like mine would have the chance at an ESA. 

Matt Beienburg
Matt Beienburg

Despite such pleas and experiences, however, opponents of the bill have lashed out at the program, with one lawmaker even claiming: “This has been a calculated movement to re-segregate schools.” History aside, the real calculation seems to be the opposition’s willingness to prioritize the demands of teachers unions over the actual desires of minority constituents. 

 If that sounds harsh, consider the findings from the Harvard-affiliated journal Education Next’s 2020 Education Poll, which found 65% support (vs. 17% opposition) for low-income private choice programs among African Americans, a staggering contrast to the mere 12% support among teachers’ union members (who were 80% opposed). Hispanics similarly clocked in at odds with the teachers’ union: 59% supporting private choice vs. just 25% opposed. 

But what about the defeat of ESA expansion in Arizona a few years ago? Well, as noted by Yellow Sheet Report: Local pollster George Khalaf recently conducted  a poll on support for ESAs and found that in a post-pandemic world, even Hispanics and Democrats are changing their tunes on ESAs. …  A whopping 70 percent supported expansion. … That majority extends to Hispanics, who support it at 78 percent…” These findings also mirror the surge in ESA support shown in other Arizona and national polls. 

 Despite this support, opponents have launched other attacks on SB1452, arguing, for example, that it is too expansive. Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, for instance, complained that SB1452 would “open [ESAs] up to 70% of kids,” while The Arizona Republic warned that “Under the bill, two thirds of Arizona’s 1.1 million public-school students  650,000 to 700,000 children  would become eligible.” In its current form, SB1452 would indeed give some 600,000 students who qualify for free and-reduced-price lunch the chance to participate in the program. 

 But let’s be clear about just who these kids that we wouldn’t want to risk giving ESA access to really are. Roughly 80% of these children are students of color. Specifically, as a 2018 report by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center found, minority students accounted for 78% of free and-reduced-price lunch kids in Arizona, while white students made up just 22%. This means SB1452’s free-and-reduced-price-lunch eligibility provision would ensure minority students access to ESAs at a rate of almost 4 to 1 compared to their white peers. 

 Moreover, while opponents complain that SB 1452 would give nearly twothirds of students access to the ESA program, consider again who this actually refers to. Based on the minority center’s report, the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility provision in SB1452 would cover “over 66 percent of Hispanic students in Arizona,” approximately 59% of African American students, and just 26% of white students. 

To be clear, lawmakers should seek to advance policies that protect the rights and liberties of all people, regardless of race or wealth. But especially as union activists seek to point fingers in every direction but their own when it comes to “structural barriers” holding back communities of color, perhaps it is time lawmakers rethink their loyalties and take action to remove the real obstacles affecting communities in need. 

 Robert Baca is an Arizona parent of three children. Matt Beienburg is the director of education policy and the director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute. 

Goldwater Institute sues Arizona Department of Education over vouchers

new laws on the books

The Goldwater Institute today sued the Arizona Department of Education, alleging it mishandled the state’s school voucher program in a way that breaks state law. 

The lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on behalf of several families, alleges the department engaged in illegal rulemaking when it developed its Empowerment Scholarship Account handbook and has no authority to demand that parents repay voucher funds the department determines have been misspent. 

Goldwater Institute attorney Timothy Sandefur said Goldwater has no problem with the department developing a handbook, provided it follows the state’s rulemaking process. Without doing so, the department has no authority to enforce any provisions in the handbook, he said. 

“I think it would be an excellent outcome if the department said ‘We’re going to follow the rulemaking process that the law requires and allow public input and discussion and so forth before we impose these rules on people,” Sandefur said. 

Goldwater filed the lawsuit on behalf of four Maricopa County parents — Maisha Byrd, Chauncey Hallford, Kayla Svedin and Prisca Walton — who have children with special needs who participate in the voucher program. 

According to the complaint, Walton was informed in January 2017 that she had misspent voucher funds for one of her children, and neither of her children would have their accounts restored while she appealed.

The complaint does not lay out how the other plaintiffs have been harmed by current department policies. Rather, it focuses on the process by which the department developed those policies, saying the ESA handbook is a set of rules and therefore should have been adopted under a rulemaking procedure that allowed for public comment.

“Our complaint is not focused on any particular past injury, but seeks instead prospective relief from doing this again in the future,” Sandefur said.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in an opinion in 2017 that his office did not consider the ESA handbook a set of rules but instead saw it as informational guidelines for parents. As such, Brnovich determined that the Department of Education didn’t need to follow a formal rulemaking procedure to draft the handbook. 

Neither the Department of Education, nor Brnovich’s office, had received a copy of the complaint before the Goldwater Institute sent it to the media. Department of Education communications director Richie Taylor said the department is consulting with legal counsel and has nothing further to comment. 

The problems alleged in the complaint all seem to predate Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman’s tenure, but she was named as a plaintiff in her official capacity – as was Brnovich.

Group hopes to stop school voucher expansion before it takes effect

Dawn Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona announces a campaign to repeal the recent expansion of the state's school voucher system on May 8, 2017, at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)
Dawn Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona announces a campaign to repeal the recent expansion of the state’s school voucher system on May 8, 2017, at the Arizona Capitol. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

When Arizona students return to school in August, a new law could make the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts available to all 1.1 million of them. Unless a grassroots group of opponents has its way.

Save Our Schools Arizona has until August 1 to collect the more than 75,000 signatures needed to put S1431 on the 2018 ballot and halt its implementation in the meantime. If the group fails, the expansion will take effect Aug. 9.

Enrollment under the expansion is capped at roughly 5,500 new students per year, which translates to approximately 30,000 spots by 2022.

The group claims there are not enough safeguards on the law and that it would siphon much-needed funds from public schools to serve students who may not need the financial help.

“Arizona’s public school system is already one of the worst funded… It’s the least invested in in the entire country,” said Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker. “We should not be funding and finding programs that take away even more from these starving schools that serve 95 percent of our kids.”

But the law’s supporters say the expansion would give power back to parents and put private schools within reach for kids who could not otherwise afford them.

“It’s just about putting one more option on the table,” said Kim Martinez, the spokeswoman for the American Federation for Children.

S1431 would expand Arizona’s school voucher program, called the Empowerment Scholarship Account, which redirects the money that would be spent on a child’s public school into an account the family can draw on to pay for a private or religious school.

The accounts were created in 2011 for students with disabilities and have gradually been expanded to include children on reservations, military kids, those who are wards of the state and those in failing schools, among other categories.

The state is not yet accepting applications for the expanded program, but interested families can get on a list to be notified by the Arizona Department of Education when the application is available.

Arizona has been a leader in private school voucher programs, but other states have followed suit. Indiana has one of the nation’s largest school choice programs, the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, in which eligibility is determined by income, so that low-income students benefit.

Critics note that there is no such limit on applications under the new Arizona program, where rolling applications are determined on a first-come, first-served basis, according to state education officials.

“If it was true that they wanted to help low-income families, they would’ve put an income cap,” Penich-Thacker said, arguing that the vouchers have only helped affluent families.

Martinez dismisses the suggestion that ESA takes money from the public school system, arguing that the money never belonged to the schools in the first place. Because the state allocates funding per student, not per school, she said, parents should be able to decide where that money is spent.

To Chris Perea, a teacher at Gateway Academy in Phoenix, the current ESA program has been life-saving for his students. He said most of them would not otherwise be able to afford to go to the school that specializes in children with Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism.

“Our students start to blossom within weeks of getting to our school. Our students begin to love life again,” said Perea, a former public school teacher.

He said that nearly 80 percent of Gateway students are able to attend the school thanks to the ESA program.

“It’s allowing these students access to what’s best for them. It allows the parents to put them in schools that can specialize to meet the needs of their students,” he said.

Not all teachers are fans of expanding private school vouchers.

Christina Marsh, the 2016 Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year, said vouchers siphons off money from the general fund to subsidize more affluent students’ education, and that places more vulnerable populations at a disadvantage.

“I’m mad and I’m sad. It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Marsh, who plans to run for the state Senate in 2018. “We do have the money. We are just not spending it where it needs to be spent, and the voucher program is just one more example of that.”

Group starts campaign to put school voucher restrictions on ballot


An organization of public school supporters wants voters to limit the number of vouchers of state tax dollars that parents can use to send their children to private and parochial schools.

The initiative drive launched Wednesday by Save Our Schools would prohibit the state from issuing vouchers to more than 1 percent of the total number of children enrolled in public schools. There are about 1.1 million students in traditional district and charter schools, setting the cap at about 11,000.

Priority would be given to students with disabilities, first to those who already get vouchers and then to students with disabilities still in public schools. Then, if there were still vouchers available, first priority would go to those students who already had received vouchers and, finally, to students in other categories the legislature has determined are eligible.

Dawn Penich Thacker
Dawn Penich Thacker

That broad list includes not just students with disabilities but also children in foster care, children of active duty military, students attending schools rated D or F and all students living on Indian reservations.

To keep that list from expanding even farther, the proposal would prohibit lawmakers from creating new categories. It also would prohibit parents from saving the state funds they get for K-12 education and instead set them aside for college tuition, a practice that now is legal.

And the proposal also requires that any public dollars in vouchers be used in the state.

That is significant, coming the same day the Arizona Senate gave preliminary approval to allow the use of vouchers at schools outside of the state within two miles of the Arizona border.

This is designed to help students living on the Navajo Reservation who want to attend private schools in New Mexico. But as worded it would allow any student to attend any private school just outside the state’s border.

Backers have until July 2 to gather 237,645 valid signatures on petitions to put the issue on the November ballot.

Save Our Schools has a track record on this issue − and their ability to put issues on the ballot. This is the same organization which two years ago got voters, by a nearly 2-1 margin, to override a move by Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers to eventually allow any of the state’s 1.1 million students in public schools get vouchers.

The problem, according to Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the organizers of Save Our Schools, is that Arizona lawmakers didn’t listen to the results of the 2018 vote and aren’t listening now.

“The last two legislative sessions we’ve been beating back seven different voucher expansion bills,” she said.

“We finally realized they’re never going to stop until we stop them,” Penich-Thacker said. “So the only way to stop politicians from working against the voters is to do a voter-protected initiative.”

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, speaks during a Joint Border Security Advisory Committee at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Ariz. Smith, the Republican chair of Arizona Senate committee considering Gov. Doug Ducey's wide-ranging school safety proposal, vowed Thursday, April 19, 2018, to ensure that whatever plan passes the GOP-controlled Legislature protects gun rights and has support from the National Rifle Association.. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
In this Nov. 9, 2015, file photo, Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, speaks during a Joint Border Security Advisory Committee at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. He is now the director of the American Federation for Children. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Simply put, once voters enact something at the ballot, the Arizona Constitution forbids lawmakers from repealing it or making major changes unless they “further the purpose” of the original measure. And even then it requires a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate.

There are about 8,200 students now receiving vouchers, well within the 1 percent of the 1.1 million students in public schools, with a price tag of about $110 million.

“We wanted to find a spot that didn’t kick off anyone who’s currently in the program but didn’t allow massive growth because we want to refocus on the public schools and the funding for public schools that 95 percent of kids are in,” Penich-Thacker explained. “It’s a reasonable limit.”

More significant, she said, is the requirement for the priority to go to students with disabilities − the original reason that vouchers were enacted in the first place.

“The legislature has never seen fit to take care of special needs students in the ESA program as much as they use them as pawns,” Penich-Thacker said. She said the change, if approved by voters, will mean that “over time this program serves the students they say it was designed to serve.”

In 2018 Save Our Schools gathered virtually all the signatures they needed with volunteers. But the number needed this time is greater. And Penich-Thacker said her organization does have some funds available but would not disclose the amount or the source at this point.

That information eventually is required to become public.The proposal is provoking kickback from various groups which have supported the concept of vouchers.

“This recent political threat by Save Our Schools falls right in line with their track record of stomping on Native American children, children with special needs, and low-income children simply because these families may choose to pursue education opportunities outside of the public school system,” said Steve Smith, state director of American Federation for Children in a prepared statement. “If we truly want what’s best for each individual student, then let the parents make that decision, not a partisan lobbying group like Save Our Schools.”

“Arizona already has more school choice than any state in the nation,” Penich-Thacker countered, noting out that the state has not only open enrollment allowing students to any public school they want but also an extensive network of charter schools, both nonprofit and for profit. She said parents who want something else should not be able to use public dollars.

“It’s not an endless aquifer,” Penich-Thacker said.

“We need more educational opportunities, not fewer, especially for low-income children who have even greater needs,” said Matt Beienburg, the Goldwater Institute director of education policy in a prepared statement. “We should be working to give them the same access other families have to schooling options, not locking them out from them.”

High rate of Indian students denied school vouchers

Jar for coinsThe Arizona Department of Education and a school choice advocacy group place blame on each other for the dismal acceptance rate among Indian children who apply for school vouchers.

Students living within the boundaries of Indian reservations are eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers, which allow qualified students to use public money to attend a private or parochial school, yet a high percentage have been denied in the last two school years.

According to data from the Arizona Department of Education, 99 of 233 applications for students living on reservations, or about 43 percent, were denied for the 2017-2018 school year. Of those, 58 students were rejected because they had not attended a public school for the first 100 days of the prior school year.

Another 24 applications were denied because they simply were not complete; 11 were missing a birth certificate or signatures; two students were not eligible to attend kindergarten when they applied; two did not reside within the reservation boundaries; and two more did not provide proof of residency.

In an email to the Arizona Capitol Times, ADE spokesman Stefan Swiat said the department tries to “get the best information possible in [parents’] hands” to understand eligibility requirements before they apply for their children.

In particular, he pointed to the high number of students denied for not meeting a public school enrollment requirement.

The department’s website does lay out specific requirements for different groups of qualified students. For students on reservations, the requirements include attendance at a state district or charter school for the first 100 days of the prior school year. Alternatively, those students could have received scholarships from a School Tuition Organization, or STO.

“It’s unfortunate for the students and the parents that such a high percentage of denials are being issued for an eligibility requirement that is clearly outlined in the application,” Swiat said.

The assumption being that some families may have been wrongly informed or even misled about their eligibility.

Advocates who have worked with families on reservations reject that notion.

Kim Martinez
Kim Martinez

Kim Martinez, spokeswoman for the American Federation for Children, said the state Department of Education should have a special set of procedures when working with tribal families lest they slip through the cracks. The American Federation for Children has been a staunch supporter of the expansion of ESAs and school choice in Arizona.

Martinez said the department’s ESA office has incorrectly denied families or issued denials based on small errors that could have been corrected. Rather, families may just give up.

“They cannot take a systemic approach with these families,” she said. “After receiving a denial letter, that understandably causes the tribal parent to give up and stop pursuing an ESA.”

A similar trend is developing among the applications for the 2018-2019 school year.

Not all of those applications have been processed yet, but the department did provide tallies for those that have.

As of August 7, a determination had not been made for 130 of 213 applications received for students living on reservations. Of those that were resolved, 55 were approved, and 24 were denied – that’s a denial rate of about 30 percent.

The remaining four applications were simply closed. According to ADE’s parent handbook, an account may be closed upon request, because an application for renewal was not received on time, because a student exited the program upon turning 18 or completing the 12th grade, or because the student was removed from the ESA program.

Swiat did not immediately return requests for an update on the applications that have been processed.

Hoffman to push ban on English-only learning, expects voucher fight

In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Kathy Hoffman, a public school speech therapist, is a Democratic candidate running for superintendent of public education, in Phoenix. Hoffman is running against three-term California congressman Frank Riggs, the founding president of an online charter school. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona schools chief expects to have the same impact for the 2020 legislative session as last year, but she’s preparing for at least one education fight she considers as a distraction to the bigger picture.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is ready for school vouchers to take over the education discussion at the Legislature this year, but it won’t sway her from trying to repeal the state’s English immersion law and get more funding for special education.

“Our priorities have not changed. They’ve stayed steady,” Hoffman told the Arizona Capitol Times on January 7.

Last year, Hoffman, with the help of Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, was able to get a repeal of the state’s ban on promoting a homosexual lifestyle in sex education classes, and she managed to get a reduction in the number of required hours of English immersion for English language learners to two from four per day.

In what seems like a light load this year are two issues Hoffman does not take lightly. She came close to repealing the English-only education law in 2019, but efforts fell short.

The House approved Rep. John Fillmore’s HCR 2026 on a 59-1 vote, and it flew through the Senate Education Committee unanimously, but in the waning hours of the legislative session, the repeal was left to die, never receiving a full Senate vote.

Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, sponsored the ballot referral again this year.

Hoffman said she is ready for the fight over vouchers, formally known as the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, or ESAs, which allow families to use public money to send their children to private schools.

The ESA battle actually began in May and picked up steam throughout the summer.

It began when the Education Department rescinded ESAs for a small group of Navajo Nation students who used them to attend a school just across the state line in New Mexico. Lawmakers quickly passed a law to allow those students to finish their school year.

Gov. Doug Ducey mentioned in his sixth State of the State Address on January 13 the promise he made to students on the Navajo Nation to allow them to continue using voucher money at the school in New Mexico.

School-choice groups also went on the offensive during the summer by bringing to light other instances of the department’s mishandling of school vouchers and blaming Hoffman.

Hoffman says it’s disappointing that this is what Republicans want to focus their energy on, but she will keep hammering on something she has repeated several times before.

“We’ve made it perfectly crystal clear that we are underfunded and understaffed to best run this program. And so we’ve made our request very clear of what it would take … to improve the management of the ESA program,” she said.

Through it all, though, Hoffman said she is proud of how the department has handled things so far with accountability and transparency.

“We’ve caught up on years of expense reports and auditing and even though the current program has continued to grow, we’ve been able to ensure more fiscal responsibility of those tax dollars.”

A fight over sex education Hoffman was expecting probably won’t come – at least not right away. .

Senate President Karen Fann on January 13 withheld Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen’s sex education bill, which would have banned students from taking sex education until seventh grade, and Democratic Sen. Victoria Steele’s bill, which would have required sex education to be medically accurate and age appropriate for all grades.

“I think the conversation about this has become really ugly and vulgar in ways that I think are a distraction to the real work that needs to be done,” Hoffman said. “We need to be looking at how we best empower kids to make healthy decisions. How do we prevent teen pregnancies? How do we prevent kids from contracting STIs and STDs? And so I want our curriculum to be inclusive for all kids to feel safe and welcome in their classroom.”

Hoffman, school choice group clash over voucher program

Gilbert parent Christine Accurso in a video produced by the American Federation for Children describes long wait times in trying to get her child signed up for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. (Photo courtesy of YouTube)
Gilbert parent Christine Accurso in a video produced by the American Federation for Children describes long wait times in trying to get her child signed up for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

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.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR

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.

Diane Douglas
Diane Douglas

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.

‘Strings Attached’

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.

Sylvia Allen
Sylvia Allen

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.”

More Videos

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. 

Mark Finchem
Mark Finchem

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.

Horne, Hoffman debate LGBTQ+ website

Kathy Hoffman, Tom Horne, Superintendent of Public Instruction
From left are Kathy Hoffman and Tom Horne

The Republican candidate for the state’s top educational official is lashing out at incumbent Kathy Hoffman for her agency’s decision to promote a web site for LGBTQ+ and “questioning teens.”

“I think it’s very harmful,” said Tom Horne, referring to QChat during a debate Wednesday for superintendent of public instruction. He said the site, which can be accessed directly from the web page of the Arizona Department of Education, is designed to undermine the rights of parents to know what their children are viewing.

“Kids can go on there without their parents’ permission,” Horne said.

“They give detailed information about themselves,” he said. “They give detailed information about their sex lives or sexual thoughts.”

And he said there even is a function designed to help youngsters keep their parents from finding out what they’re doing: an “escape” button on the page that replaces what is on the screen with a Google page.

Hoffman, seeking reelection, does not dispute what is on the site. But she said Horne is making too much of it.

“The QChat is recommended by the CDC and the national organization Mental Health America as a resource helping to support our LGBTQ youth,” she said.

Hoffman said the decision to post a link came after consulting with a committee of parents, educators and LGBTQ+ students. She said it’s part of her agency’s role in providing resources for these students.

“This is a group of students who far too often are facing hate in the world and communication that’s attacking our LGBTQ youth,” Hoffman said, and she added they need resources. And she called Horne’s attacks “political.”

Horne, however, questioned whether students were getting real help.

He said the moderators are not licensed professionals.

“We don’t know how many of them might be predators,” Horne continued, though the site says the “facilitators” are “verified.” And then there’s keeping parents out of the loop, citing the escape button.

The solution for kids who can’t talk with parents, he said, is to go to “trained, licensed counselors in their schools.”

“This is outrageous for the parents to not play any role,” Horne said. “If you’re comfortable having your child talk with a stranger about sexual matters without your participation, please vote for Kathy Hoffman.”

For her part, Hoffman called the debate over the web site – it also has resulted in a lawsuit against Hoffman by Republican activist Peggy McClain – a diversion.

“What I am focused on is not these culture wars attacking the LGBTQ youth,” she said, but rather on issues like why Arizona does not fund preschool or full-day kindergarten. “If we want our state to be moving forward, let’s be supporting public education, including making our schools safe and inclusive for all kids.”

Hoffman also launched an attack of her own, saying if Horne is concerned about child welfare he never would have accepted support from former state Rep. David Stringer. The Prescott Republican stepped down from the legislature in 2019 following disclosure he had been arrested years earlier on various charges, including paying to have sex with an underage boy.

Horne said the only involvement Stringer had in his campaign this year was his decision to erect some campaign signs for him at a cost of $1,400. Stringer then posted pictures of himself next to those signs.

But when the support first came to light, Horne initially defended Stringer, saying he was innocent of those 1983 charges from Maryland and there was never any conviction. Only later did he distance himself from Stringer and reimburse him for that $1,400 expense.

During the half-hour debate aired on KAET-TV, the Phoenix PBS affiliate, the pair also found themselves on opposite sides of the decision earlier this year by the Republican-controlled legislature to create a universal system of vouchers to allow students to attend private and parochial schools at state expense.

“I think public education dollars should stay in public education,” Hoffman said. She said the new law provides no accountability, like standardized testing, to ensure students going to priavte schools with tax dollars are learning what they need to know.

Horne, however, said he sees vouchers, formally known as empowerment scholarship accounts, as an important equalizer.

“Rich people can send their kids to any school they want to,” he said.

“Poor people should have that ability as well,” Horne said. “And the whole idea of the ESA program is to give the people who don’t have as much money the ability to do the same thing that rich people do now.”

House education committee grills apologetic Hoffman over voucher blunder

In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Kathy Hoffman, a public school speech therapist, is a Democratic candidate running for superintendent of public education in Phoenix. Hoffman is running against three-term California congressman Frank Riggs, the founding president of an online charter school. In a wild card movement shaking up U.S. midterm election campaigns, hundreds of teacher candidates are running for elected office. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman faced tough questions from Republicans on the House Education Committee Monday over her department’s mishandling of private Empowerment Scholarship Account data that was improperly redacted and given to the press and an advocacy group opposed to voucher expansion. 

Hoffman was at the committee hearing to present her State of Education address, a summary of the department’s initiatives and progress in the last year. But things turned testy when House Education Chair Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, opened the floor for questions.

Regina Cobb
Regina Cobb

GOP lawmakers, especially Rep. Regina Cobb, were quick to steer the conversation to ADE’s blunder, which became public last week when the Capitol Times reported that the department had fulfilled a records request for voucher account balances with a database that also included the e-mail addresses and names of parents and guardians holding nearly 7,000 voucher accounts. 

Cobb asked Hoffman to describe when and how the data was mishandled, what steps the department has taken to remedy its mistakes and whether Hoffman would name and discipline the individual responsible for the faulty redaction, something the superintendent avoided addressing during the hearing. 

“I want to be forthright and apologize,” Hoffman told Cobb. “I know that many families have been distressed because of this.” 

The voucher program allows parents to access state funds to send their students to private schools if they meet one of several different conditions, such as if they have special needs, if they have parents in the military or if they attend D or F rated schools. 

Hoffman told the committee that the department began reviewing its data governance standards and contacted the U.S. Department of Education to determine if there was a violation of federal student privacy laws immediately following the incident. 

But Republican lawmakers continued to turn the screws. Cobb pointed to Hoffman’s previous opposition to voucher expansion, which the Kingman Republican said could create the perception that the data breach was intentional, something the department denies. 

Cobb also took aim at the Arizona Republic and the Capitol Times, which she accused of “battering” parents that were already feeling vulnerable after the publication of the data, which also included information about the learning disabilities of their children, though there were no childrens’ names listed. She asked Hoffman if there was anything she could do to stop the media from reaching out to parents in the database, while Hoffman countered that she could not speak on behalf of the press.

The mishandling of the ESA data has given rise to calls from the right to move the ESA program out of the department, possibly relocating it to the Arizona State Treasurer’s office under Kimberly Yee, a Republican. 

“Right now, we have a duty to manage the program,” Hoffman said. “It’s growing rapidly.”

Education Committee Democrats came to Hoffman’s defense on a number of occasions. Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, said the committee was unfairly shifting blame to the department instead of taking responsibility for better oversight of the voucher program. Namely, she pointed out the fact that several voucher accounts have unspent balances exceeding $100,000. 

“$33 million is being hoarded by a small group of families,” Blanc said. “[Roughly 7,000] scholarships are costing the taxpayers $100 million.”

The program is taxpayer funded and an estimated $110 million was appropriated for the current fiscal year, according to the Department of Education. The total balance added up from all accounts exceeds $33 million.

And while Hoffman conceded that she had opposed voucher expansion in the past, she told the committee that she has repeatedly asked for extra funding to administer the program to no avail. 

Under statute, 5 percent of the total funding for the ESA program can be used for administration — 4 percent to the Education Department and 1 percent to the Treasurer’s Office. But the department has gotten less than that year after year, despite requests from Hoffman and her predecessor, Diane Douglas, for more. And despite the growing size of the program, staffing to administer the fund has remained stagnant. 

In the 2020 fiscal year, the legislature could have authorized up to $4.4 million for administrative costs, but the department estimates it only received $1.2 million. 

“I think we’ve done everything in our power to support the program, and that includes requesting the funding … that is supposed to be allocated for us to support the program,” Hoffman said. “When that money was withheld last legislative session, I was … quite shocked that the same people who say that they support this program and want it to be successful are not fully funding it.”

And while she told the committee she thinks that education funding should be a nonpartisan issue, the fact that Hoffman is the first Democratic superintendent in 25 years colors the debate around vouchers, she said. 

“They had a lot of the same struggles [under Douglas],” Hoffman said. “And yet at that time there was not the same level of attacks against the department. And there were no calls to move the program out of ADE.”

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously reported that eligible students in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program can use the funds on charter schools. 

House set to introduce bill to allow vouchers for out-of-state schools

Jar for coins

The House Rules Committee on Monday granted permission for the late introduction of legislation to allow parents to use Empowerment Scholarship Accounts out of state.

Over the weekend, House Majority Leader Warren Petersen and Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray promised to introduce legislation in response to the Arizona Department of Education rescinding participation in the ESA program from families on the Navajo Nation because funds from the accounts were used at a private school in New Mexico.

“We will be introducing legislation as soon as possible to allow these kids to continue to utilize their ESAs,” the pair said in a press release. “While details are still being finalized, we have bipartisan support in both the House and Senate to correct this outrage.”

ESAs, or vouchers, allow parents or guardians to use taxpayer money that would have gone to a student’s public school on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum. The ESA program began in 2011 specifically for special needs students, and has since grown to allow an array of students – from failing schools and children whose parents are in the military.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill in 2015 giving all Native children who live on the reservation ESA access.

Richie Taylor, the communications director for ADE, said the department only found out the funds from the accounts were being used out of state within the last few months while conducting a routine audit.

He said the funds were wrongly approved during the previous administration, but not directly by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas. Taylor chalked it up as an oversight “likely due to being short staffed.”

Taylor said things were approved “in bulk” and the approval happened in error.

Under state law, ESA funds cannot be spent on out-of-state tuition. ADE sent letters to the families most-affected telling them the situation in hopes they would get in touch with the department or that they could work out a solution, Taylor said.

Ducey tweeted Sunday to say he was working closely with Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the Legislature to resolve this issue.

Correction: A previous headline erroneously stated the House introduced a bill to allow vouchers for out-of-state schools. The House Rules Committee actually allowed for the late introduction of the bill, which at the time of publication had not been introduced. 


Law or not, school voucher oversight in the works


A provision slipped into the budget directs state officials to contract with a private company to help administer Arizona’s school voucher program.

No problem, says Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman – that was already in the works.

In March, the state Treasurer’s Office, which is responsible for banking services for the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, issued a request for proposals for “alternative banking solutions” for the voucher program.

Essentially, the state is looking for a service that can provide real-time oversight of how parents spend public monies provided to them via scholarship accounts.

Such a program may even be able to prevent parents from illegally spending those ESA dollars in the first place.

Lorraine Jones, deputy state treasurer for operations, said, “We are looking for other processing payment solutions that might allow for better, more timely oversight that would prevent purchases from being made that would then, ultimately, [be] deemed to be inappropriate.”

Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education, said the idea arose in conversations among Hoffman’s ESA task force.

“As a group, they all said that there’s a couple of places the program is failing. One is that there’s just an administrative burden that needs to be relieved… And then the other piece was being able to monitor fraud, because basically, we’re playing a reactionary game,” Swiat said. “Other than Venmo or cash withdrawals, which we can detect immediately, everything else we’re waiting for an expense report. Who conducts business like that?”

That late detection garnered headlines at the end of the legislative session amid reports that Navajo families in Window Rock were illegally spending their ESA dollars to send their children to school across the state border in New Mexico.

The illegitimate expense was only discovered long after the fact during a routine audit.

“There’s a perfect example where a family is being advised or not understanding the law, so they’re going to spend something, innocently even, on an expense that is illegal. And so we have to catch that retroactively, and now we’re asking a family that’s already spent the money to reconcile that,” Swiat said. “And it’s not an efficient way to run the program.”

Fraud and misuse of ESA funds has been an ongoing problem, with nearly annual reports of parents using the money illegally, including a 2014 case where an ESA was allegedly used for an abortion.

Hoffman’s task force unanimously agreed that a third party vendor could help monitor ESA expenditures in real time, and the Treasurer’s Office issued an RFP for the program more than a month ago.

Now that agreement is enshrined in law.

An amendment to the budget, sponsored by House Speaker Rusty Bowers, directs the Department of Education to contract with a third-party vendor to assist with financial administration and oversight of the ESA program.

Hoffman said she wasn’t fazed by the Legislature’s mandate.

“We were already so far into the process and it didn’t matter to me whether it was in statute,” she said. “The current system is inherently broken and set up for failure. With prepaid debit cards there is a high risk for fraud and misspending whether families mean to or not, so moving to this closed payment system will be more on the preventative side and more proactive to make sure ESA dollars are going where they are allowed to go “

Hoffman said the vendor won’t have access to student data – only account numbers and expense reports. Student data is still under the exclusive purview of the Department of Education.

It’s unclear how the new vendor will be paid. The Department of Education was granted no new funds in the budget. Perhaps there will be savings realized by replacing the current vendor, Bank of America, which provides the debit cards that families use to spend ESA dollars.

Swiat said the vendor may take a cut of the sale of educational materials when parents shop through a vendor’s digital marketplace.

“The way they make their money is, it would be like a walled garden. So any products within there, you can buy. And within that marketplace, the vendor would take a percentage off the product’s price,” Swiat said.

More to the point, this marketplace – kind of like an online shopping portal – will prevent parents from buying items that are unapproved, since all the items available for purchase in the marketplace are pre-approved under state law, Swiat said.

The Treasurer’s Office missed its June 3 deadline to award a new financial services contract. Jones said it took longer than expected to evaluate various bids and proposals, but that a decision could be made in the next week or two.

Dillon Rosenblatt contributed to this report.

Matthew Ladner: Arizona’s school choice guru

Cap Times Q&A

Matthew Ladner is one of the biggest school choice advocates in Arizona and he thinks the debate on the topic is not a productive one.

Ladner, leader of the new Arizona Center for Student Opportunity, a think tank under the Arizona Charter Schools Association, was involved in the beginning of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program and has watched it evolve from 150 students to 7,000 as it stands today. But he thinks, as the program continues to grow, it should receive the appropriate funding the budget is supposed to allocate to it.

ESA is a voucher-like program funded by the state that enables parents of children with special needs or other circumstances to enroll their children in a private school or for other educational options, including home-schooling. The parents receive 90% of what the state would spend on their child in the public school system.

The ESA program currently receives roughly 1% of an allocated 4% that goes to the Department of Education and another 1% that goes to the Treasurer’s Office.

“I’m not aware of any program that runs at 1% funding,” Ladner said.

He said it’s wrong to place blame on Kathy Hoffman, the superintendent of public instruction, when the program isn’t fully funded and that the Great Recession had a lot of effect on schools overall.

“The last decade was rough, but it wasn’t rough because of the ESA program,” Ladner said.

Ladner sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times at a coffee shop in Phoenix to talk about the problems with education, funding and especially the voucher program.

I saw you got a new job recently. Can you tell me what you’ll be doing?

I’ll be director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity, and we will be doing research on public choice programs like charter schools and open enrollment. We’re especially interested in looking into the interaction of different types of choice, academic and also non-academic outcomes.

How did you get into the life of school choice policy?

I got into school choice policy after meeting my mentor, Dr. Jay Greene, in graduate school. I think it has been a lot more fun than a typical academic career, having been involved in a number of different research and philanthropic roles. I was a part of the team that developed Education Savings Accounts at the Goldwater Institute, worked for Jeb Bush’s Excel in Ed Foundation for five years after researching their statewide academic achievement gains and in recent years have been researching Arizona charter schools.

Where do you think school choice lobbyists and legislators have fallen short in recent years in terms of whatever your ideal scenario is for school choice?

I think that a lot of our current debate is not productive. There is a political conversation going on about charter schools that is sort of detached. How do we get that reality – and I think that the way we get this, if the conversation ever becomes remotely mature – what we would be talking about is how do other states handle certain issues? Arizona is not the only state with a charter school law. … I haven’t yet heard anyone say, “You know what? In North Carolina, they do XYZ.” What I’ve heard is sort of an incoherence, like a desire to be critical.

One of the biggest fights in terms of school choice lately has been how (the Education Department) is handling the ESA voucher program. What are your opinions of how things have gone in the past year or so compared to how the program was under Superintendent Diane Douglas?

The Superintendent [Kathy Hoffman] asked me to serve on the ESA task force, which I’m still a member of and I was very pleased with their decision to bring in an outside firm that helped them create the data system. The program is administratively complex that those of us who supported it understood at the outset. It was just a great bipartisan example of cooperation between the superintendent and Treasurer [Kimberly] Yee. … All these issues are stuff that they’ve been dealing with for years. Superintendent Douglas consistently refused to consider bringing in an outside firm and what Hoffman and Yee did is a very commendable decision.

I think the situation with the Navajo families was very unfortunate. They were relying upon a ruling that either actively or passively was made by the previous administration. … I don’t think that sending a letter kicking them off the program and demanding repayment was appropriate. But I don’t believe that the superintendent is purposely trying to sabotage the program or anything like that kind of notion. I think that this superintendent has made strides to administer the program that the previous administration didn’t make.

Do you think the criticisms of Superintendent Hoffman from groups like the American Federation for Children and some parents have been fair?

There is absolutely no doubt that parents have deeply felt grievances about the way the program has been run. But they don’t start with Hoffman. They’ve been going on for years. … There’s a lot of fear. … The program has always been dysfunctional and someone who gets elected superintendent who’s publicly an opponent of the program, it’s kind of natural for parents to be afraid. … I’m very pleased with the way the treasurer and superintendent are able to work cooperatively to improve the administration of the program. I don’t think it should be as controversial as it is.

Based on how many students qualified when the program first began compared to the 7,000 or so that qualify now, does that number seem about what you would have expected by this point back then? 

The growth rate of these programs is always incremental and this program is similar to historical experience with choice programs around the country. Far less than 1 percent of Arizona kids are enrolled in the program but a much larger number of students have the program available if they need it.

Mesa homeschooled students given ESA vouchers by mistake


An error by Mesa Public Schools could lead to 27 homeschooled students losing access to the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program they were mistakenly granted.

If it hadn’t been for one parent whose son was rescinded an ESA voucher months after mistakenly being approved, the Arizona Department of Education may have never found out about the bigger issue.

Mike Retel applied for his son, Emerson, to get an ESA in February for the 2019-20 school year and was approved. His son has a learning disability, which qualifies him for the voucher, but to be eligible all students also need to be full-time at a public school. Emerson was homeschooled.

So in June, four months after being approved, Retel applied again for his other children to receive ESAs. The law states that if one child is qualified, all siblings will be as well. However, in doing so the department realized Emerson never should have been approved in the first place; so the department rescinded his approval on July 2 – mere weeks before the start of the school year.

ESAs allow parents or guardians to use taxpayer money that would have gone to a student’s public school on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum. The ESA program began specifically for special needs students, and has since grown to allow an array of students – from failing schools and children whose parents are in the military. 

Emerson attended Eagleridge Enrichment Center in Mesa, which a spokeswoman for Mesa Public Schools confirmed is not a full-time public school. Eagleridge’s website describes it as “providing innovative enrichment opportunities and support for all homeschooled students.” 

“It’s homeschool enrichment, so most students would attend one or two days a week,” Heidi Hurst said.

Students attending Eagleridge were already on the ESA program through the department, though, which only made Retel more upset with why he thought he was being targeted. 

A letter to Retel from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office said the office will review the files of “other Eagleridge attendees to determine their eligibility.” 

Hurst said Eagleridge has identified 27 students as being in the ESA program. 

The reason some students received ESA money was due to a reporting error about the school’s status last year, Hurst said. 

Hurst said it would ultimately be up to the department to decide if those students would lose their voucher money in the future.

“I don’t want others to lose funding,” Retel said, adding he just wants his son to get the education he needs. 

Not knowing what to do, Retel took the advice of other parents to reach out to the American Federation for Children, a school-choice organization, for assistance, but said no progress has been made yet other than some advice the group gave him.

Steve Smith, the state director for AFC, and Kim Martinez, the spokeswoman, both wanted to know why it took so long for Retel to find out about his son’s status, and the answer, according to the department, comes back to the Legislature.

Richie Taylor, a department spokesman, said when Retel applied for his other children in June, that was when processing ESA contracts for the upcoming school year was just beginning. Until a state budget is finalized, the department has no way of knowing how much money will go to each voucher for the students who do qualify, Taylor said. 

The legislative session this year lasted 134 days, which was the longest since 2013, giving the current administration far less time for processing applications. In contrast, the department under Diane Douglas’s never had a session end past May 10. 

Retel told the Arizona Capitol Times the revocation left him with minimal time to find another school, something he still has yet to accomplish.

This latest ESA controversy follows three videos in three months from AFC criticizing the Department of Education and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman for mishandling the underfunded program. 

The department demanded 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 he has an active-duty military parent, but the parent was his stepmother, not a biological parent. And in July a parent complained about the unusually long wait times she had to deal with over the phone while trying to get answers in a timely manner.

Taylor and Hoffman both have adamantly talked about how the department needs the full funding that the Legislature is holding hostage to be able to properly run the program. It’s a complaint Douglas shared, too.

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 the current and former superintendents 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.

Taylor said if the Legislature fully funded the program they could more than double the size of the staff of the ESA team and provide the level of service families deserve. Right now there are 13 full-time positions responsible for the ESA program, but only nine employees are currently available at the department each day. 

“This isn’t a political game or strategy by Hoffman’s administration. We simply need more money to manage a program that continues to grow,” Taylor said. “To suggest that they want anything other than the best for these students is both offensive and wrong.”

Micro schools and more school choice helps tribal children succeed


In San Carlos, Arizona, over two hundred parents came to the community center on a summer evening hoping to find a better education for their children. It was July 2018 and I was one of those parents.

In our San Carlos Apache Tribal community, along with most other Arizona tribal communities, children are among the lowest performing on standardized state tests. Approximately 50% of our teens ultimately drop out of school.

We must change that.

For years, Arizona has led the country in offering educational choices for families. Our state has great district schools available through open enrollment and some of the top public charter schools in the nation. We have a tax credit scholarship program that helps families with limited resources afford a private school education for their children and we were the first in the nation to have an education savings account, the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

Dassa John
Dassa John

But even with all of these wonderful options, choices in rural communities have still been limited. Families in our community have lacked alternatives when the status quo wasn’t working well enough for some of our children.

Thankfully, that is changing for families in San Carlos. We now have micro schools as another educational option.

Over the last year, the micro school concept went from a handful of classrooms serving less than 30 kids in the Phoenix Metro area to almost 60 classrooms serving more than 500 kids all across Arizona.

I am proud to be a part of this amazing growth. I am proud to be part of the first Prenda micro school on tribal land.

What is a microschool? Well, like other Prenda micro schools, our micro school in San Carlos consists of 10 students who vary in age and grade meeting each day, setting individual goals, and collaborating on activities and creative projects. Students focus on academics but are able to move at their own pace. They work on problem-solving, communication, teamwork and most importantly, they learn to love learning. Microschools are so small and mobile they are easy to bring to children in rural areas and communities like ours.

I have seen children who have struggled for years in a traditional school setting be transformed after only a few months in a Prenda micro school classroom. And because of their small size and supportive, personalized environment, micro schools excel at embracing and accepting students with learning differences.

The expansion of micro schools from serving only a handful of children to serving 500 in less than a year tells a story: Many parents who have discovered this different, innovative education concept have said, “Yes! This is the kind of school my child could thrive in.”

In a state that already seemed to have every choice under the sun, micro schools offer a new option for families in all communities, no matter how remote. That is a much-needed development.

From Jan. 26 through Feb. 1 we will celebrate National School Choice Week, which shines a light on all types of K-12 education and the right of parents to choose the learning environment where their child can thrive. This week I am especially grateful for Arizona’s micro schools. As students, parents, and educators will gather at more than 50,000 events and activities around the nation, let’s use National School Choice Week to continue to innovate so that all children can find schools where they succeed.

Dassa John is a parent and a proud member of the San Carlos Apache Tribal community. 

Mother’s criticism of schools voucher program is not valid

From left are Christine Emanuel, April Adams, and Kathy Visser
From left are Christine Emanuel, April Adams, and Kathy Visser

Hearing a mother with a child who has special needs rail against the Empowerment Scholarship Account program (hypocritically, the very program she uses to take $40,000 in education funding every year for her child) can not go unanswered by the thousands of us Mama Bears who also use ESAs and also have children with special needs. When someone is deliberately misleading the public by not giving all the facts, such as her son being enrolled in a private pay school choice option, it tells the story that she is either being obtuse or she has an agenda.

In Pamela Lang’s personal rant, she writes as though she is representing the feelings of all ESA families of children with special needs. She is absolutely not our mouthpiece, representative, spokesperson, or even an ally when it comes to advocating for our children. On that note, we will not claim that the three of us ESA mothers can speak for the struggles and fights of every ESA parent. But there is one thing we can say without a doubt that applies to every ESA parent – we have more choices than we had before.

This same anti-ESA mother wrote that she receives $40,000 a year of ESA money. She also says she can’t find a school to enroll her son, so he is stuck at home not learning. The beauty of ESA is that she can take that $40k and hire a full-time private teacher. Or she has enough funding to hire a handful of part-time teachers, tutors and therapists. We know this is achievable because we’ve done this very customizing for our own kids. One of our sons receives $30,000 a year and gets a fully customized curriculum that includes in-home tutors, private school classes, and therapies. That is the entire point of the ESA program – parents have the control over their child’s education because they direct their state education funding. We keep what is working and the day something doesn’t work we change it. If anyone’s child is sitting on a couch not being educated, as Pamela states, it is because that parent (Pamela) chose that as an option. With ESA there are so many options. Absolutely no one should be complaining because they choose for their child to sit on their couch.

She blasts private schools for not enrolling her son. Her child’s award is a lot of funding to miss out on. If a school is refusing that kind of funding, at least they are being honest when it comes to their capabilities. Those schools could just do what many public schools do and take the funds but not meet her child’s needs (we know because that is the very reason many of us ended up in ESA). We would seek honesty versus being misled, any day.

Perhaps Pamela being unwelcome at private schools in the Valley has less to do with her son and more to do with her close ties to groups seeking to eliminate school choice and her loud disdain for all options outside of public schools.

There is little doubt the mandates that have been imposed on public schools have improved special education, but it hasn’t ended the discrimination. It is also completely on the backs of individual children and their parents to enforce FAPE (Free and Appropriate Education) when violations occur. Some of us are using the ESA program today because we could not afford the lawyers to fight for our children’s rights to FAPE. Ironic, isn’t it? With the ESA program we are not required to automatically pay a provider that refuses to educate our children. We simply walk away and find a provider who does value our children and their right to an education.

If Pamela Lang wants to be an advocate against the ESA program and for the status quo, it really doesn’t make sense why she chooses to stay in the ESA program. It sounds to us like she is expecting every private school to be a fit for her son, and honestly no single school will ever be a fit for every child.

The happy ending here is that through the ESA program, she doesn’t have to use public or private schools. She has plenty of funding to pay for any other option out there.

— Christine Emanuel, April Adams and Kathy Visser are mothers whose children are in the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

Navajo Nation needs no school vouchers or meddling of any kind


The fact that some non-Native politicians at the state Capitol are taking it upon themselves to change the laws around tribal nations and tribal education for Indigenous students is unnecessary, unwelcome and frankly uninformed.

I’ve read the two bills being proposed in the state Senate and House expanding the use of private school vouchers, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, for use at out-of-state private schools as long as the students live on tribal lands or, weirdly, Colorado City, and it strikes me that the proposed solutions show a total ignorance of what solutions already exist, are already working, are preferred by tribal communities, have already been proposed (and ignored), and which do a lot more for Native children than these proposed bills.

Todd Francis
Todd Francis

“Go and tell the Navajo people that education is the ladder. We should send our kids to school despite what they (the white man) did to us.” Revered Navajo elder Chief Manuelito said this in 1893. And the Navajo people did just that – they sent their kids to school, to government schools and public schools. These final words, expressed within days of Navajo Chief Manuelito’s departure from the Glittering World, or Fourth World according to our Navajo mythology, provided each new generation of young Navajo families with one clear expectation – send your kids to school. So, young Navajo families did just that, including my grandparents, Edward and Ida Francis.

My Navajo grandparents had 8 children. Six of their surviving children graduated from federal government boarding schools – boarding meaning they spent each school semester living in military-style barracks away from home while attending grade school for twelve years. Their youngest child, however, was able to graduate from one of the first public schools built on the Navajo Reservation. She had the privilege of attending school in her hometown, Chinle, AZ. She never had to live in military-style quarters away from home, let alone leave the state. All 6 children graduated from high school and 5 went on to attend and graduate from public universities. All got married, had children and sent their own children to local Reservation public schools. I was one of these children that attended a local public school, as did 22 of my first cousins. All 23 of us graduated from high school; 20 of us graduated from Reservation public schools; and 18 of us graduated with at least a bachelor’s degree from reputable state or private universities.

These new ESA expansion bills are offensive to the legacy of thousands of Navajo families who sent their kids to school, as directed by Chief Manuelito. My grandparents, and also my own parents, sent their children to school with one primary purpose in mind – to have their children graduate from college, return to the Reservation, and take administrative control of the local public schools and run them without continuing interference from outsiders. Today, a good number of our family members are public school teachers or school administrators. This accomplishment exemplifies what’s known as Indian Self-determination. Self-determination was a national policy goal finally implemented by Richard Nixon, a Republican President, in 1970. The policy was intended to get non-Indians out of the business of meddling in Indian affairs, including Indian education policy. Senate Bill 1224 and House Bill 2898 are just more meddling.

Despite the untruths being circulated by the lobbyists and Republican politicians backing this bill, our public schools on our great Navajo Nation have not failed me or the many other Reservation high school graduates. As a matter of fact, we recognize and celebrate our outstanding high school graduates every year. They are Chief Manuelito Scholarship recipients that include graduates from our Reservation public schools. This dispels the myth promoted by Republican backers of this bill that our Navajo Nation public schools have failed and continue to fail our Navajo children.

The Office of Navajo Nation Scholarship and Financial Assistance and members of the 24th Navajo Nation Council recently worked to develop legislation that would set aside $50 million to provide more scholarship opportunities for Navajo students. This would represent the largest financial investment in scholarships in the history of the Navajo Nation.

It’s important to highlight this fact because the Navajo Nation does have the financial wherewithal to set aside and create special scholarship funds for Navajo children who also want to attend private grade schools. The Navajo Nation does not need the state’s financial assistance (state tax dollars) to invest in our kids. In other words, we don’t want or need any meddling in our tribal affairs, including directing us to fund state voucher programs. We’re quite capable of determining what programs should receive priority funding.

If state lawmakers want to help Navajo parents and children, they can pave rural state roads, support our existing public schools, fund the Office of Indian Education and let us determine our own educational futures as Chief Manuelito advised.

Todd Francis grew up on the Navajo Reservation, graduated from Chinle High School, and graduated from the University of Arizona. He is active in organizations and efforts that support Indigenous families and children in Arizona.

Parents in voucher program hold onto funds, amass large sums


Dozens of families in the state’s school voucher program are sitting on account balances of $50,000 or more, with nine of them accumulating more than $100,000 of taxpayer money over several years, according to public records.

The high amounts of unspent money in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program suggests some parents of the nearly 7,000 students enrolled might be hoarding the money.

In order to qualify for the program, students must fit into one of several groups such as having a disability, a military parent or attending a D or F rated school.

The ESA program was developed so parents could opt out of public education in favor of a private school or an alternative that may better suit their child. The program is taxpayer funded and an estimated $110 million was appropriated for the current fiscal year, according to the Department of Education. The total balance added up from all accounts exceeds $33 million.

Parents receive 90% of the amount that would go to their student’s school district, and some students with disabilities can receive as much as $40,000 per year.

State Education Department spokesman Richie Taylor said the amount going into each account depends on the type of disability the student has.

The account with the most money has $128,000 and has been active since the 2015-16 school year.

The department’s ESA handbook says parents are required to “spend something (any dollar amount)” within their contract year, and unused funds continue to roll over on a quarterly basis.

Once a student leaves the program after the 12th grade, they will have four years or until they complete college or a vocational school to spend the rest of the money, according to the handbook.

They are also allowed to spend the money on college or vocational school and any money left over after the account is retired goes back into the general fund, the handbook says.

Amy Chan, whose son is in the program, said she doesn’t understand what the parents with high account balances are even spending the money on.

“How are they educating their kids without using that money,” Chan said. “In our case,

we’re using almost the entire amount of ESA funds that we’re getting.”

Chan, who is the state’s former elections director and currently sits on the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, did not want to publicly reveal his disability.

Her son’s class has just 12 students and has a social and emotional focus in addition to academics, she said.

“I don’t even know what we would do if we weren’t sending him to a private school,” Chan said.

Chan did say their account is on the higher side of annual funds, but that she uses most of it for the private school tuition.

Chan said her only question for the parents with balances of more than $100,000 is what are they doing for their kids.

“The Legislature may need to look at how to retire funds at some point,” she said.

Save our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker, who also saw the same account records, said the high balances show “some parents are using their ESA account as a personal slush fund.”

“If you’re amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars, then clearly you’re not using the ESA to educate your child in the way the average taxpayer would expect,” she said.

Penich-Thacker said she has seen some ESA Facebook groups posting about hanging onto the account balances since they can be used on college tuition for some students.

Penich-Thacker proposed an annual check-in, at a minimum, to make sure parents aren’t hoarding funds for years.

As of January 30, no lawmaker has sponsored any legislation that would affect the account balances.

Prop. 305 defeat doesn’t end fight over voucher expansion

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8, 2018, after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

More than 1 million voters rejected lawmakers’ attempt to allow every public school student in Arizona to attend private or parochial schools on taxpayer dollars – but the fight isn’t over.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, the spokeswoman for the group responsible for sending the expansion to the ballot, announced Proposition 305’s downfall to cheers.

She said the result seemed unlikely nearly two years ago when the Legislature passed then-Sen. Debbie Lesko’s Senate Bill 1431 and a new group dubbed Save Our Schools Arizona promised a referendum.

And she had a message for lawmakers, new and old.

“Tonight’s rejection of vouchers is a mandate: Supporting and investing in public education is your priority,” she said.

Penich-Thacker said the reason Prop. 305 failed was because of the state of public education funding. She said the pro-voucher crowd has to take a step back and deal with that issue before trying to return with another attempt at voucher expansion.

“This is actually not a voucher issue,” she said. “This is a public education issue.”

As long as funding remains where it is, she said there is no voucher conversation to be had.

Arizona’s voucher program, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, pays parents or guardians 90 percent of the money that would have gone to a student’s public school. The money can be spent on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum. The program began in 2011 for only special needs students and has grown to allow an array of students, such as ones from failing schools and children whose parents are in the military.

Save Our Schools Arizona has said the program takes money out of public schools without any accountability.

If the pro-voucher side wants to talk about making alterations to the existing program, she said they need to want to get bugs out of the current system first. She said many voters’ problem was not with vouchers but with a program now plagued with fraud and misuse. Recent headlines have spotlighted hundreds of thousands in ESA funds being used not on educational choice but on personal spending sprees.

And it’s not as if public education funding is not already a priority.

The issue was at the top of politicians’ minds even before thousands of teachers and support staff went on strike and marched on the Capitol.

Penich-Thacker said pro-voucher lawmakers have always told her they care about public schools and only wanted to offer vouchers as another option.

“We’re all grownups. We’re all familiar with the idea that you have to prioritize things,” she said. “So, if they are telling the truth and they do support the choice of public education, then that’s the priority conversation.”

But some on the side of ESAs have doubled down on their support for voucher expansion.

The American Federation for Children ultimately opted to stand against Prop. 305, fearing that the state’s Voter Protection Act would have locked the law in place, including an enrollment cap of 30,000 students.

But spokeswoman Kim Martinez said the ESA program will not be sidelined.

“It’s short-sighted to put funding concerns above children whose learning requirements have to be met today,” Martinez said in an email. “The recent campaign of misinformation, confusing Arizonans on ESAs, was a disservice.”

She pointed out the expansion may have failed but students will still have access to the program. She said 250,000 students will be eligible to apply next year under current eligibility categories.

Other voucher proponents stood by Prop. 305 and appear undeterred by its failure or promises that SOS Arizona isn’t going away now that they’ve won.

The day after the election, the Goldwater Institute declared its intentions to continue the fight, emphasizing that Prop. 305 would have expanded the availability of vouchers to all students.

“Arizona has been a national leader on the path to greater school choice for families,” Goldwater President and CEO Victor Riches said in a press release. “The Goldwater Institute will continue the fight to give students and their families a greater say in their education in Arizona and across the country.”

Republicans paint Democrat Hoffman as state’s political fiend

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. Hoffman is one of the first Democrats elected to statewide office in more than 10 years and Republicans have been demonizing her politically. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman speaks at her inauguration on January 7, 2019. Hoffman is one of the first Democrats elected to statewide office in more than 10 years and Republicans have been demonizing her politically. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

The 2018 election gave Arizona Democrats their biggest wins in a decade, with three statewide victories and narrower margins in the state House.

But it also gave Republicans, who will face a tough fight to keep their long-held legislative majority, an opportunity they haven’t had since the 2010 election cycle – the ability to argue that Arizonans need Republicans in office to stave off overreach by newly empowered Democrats.

“Essentially what they’re doing is taking the brand of Democrats as extreme and attaching it to whatever name is helpful,” Democratic campaign consultant Catherine Alonzo said. “Nancy Pelosi has been the brand in the past because you haven’t necessarily had those statewide Democrats in Arizona to point to, but now that we do they’re going to be branded with the same brush.”

Nowhere is that more clear than in the case of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who, in the telling of some legislative Republicans and parent activists, is hell-bent on stripping parental rights, crippling the state’s voucher program and sexualizing schoolchildren instead of focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic.

The top Republican in the state House called Hoffman a “radical” in a speech over the weekend. Another legislative Republican called on Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate her implementation of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

The Senate’s Republican education policy leader warned parents that they would lose their rights if Democrats win the majority of legislative seats in 2020. And the state Republican Party jumped on an op-ed the Portland-raised Hoffman wrote for the Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal, urging lawmakers in her home state to support a legislative effort to create something akin to Arizona’s Clean Elections program in Oregon.

Talking Points

In Hoffman, a 33-year-old school speech therapist whose long-shot campaign was buoyed by the Red for Ed movement, Arizona Republicans found an in-state alternative to Pelosi and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. Her opposition to expanding the state’s voucher program and support for comprehensive sex education immediately placed her at odds with some legislative Republicans.

GOP political consultant Chuck Coughlin said it’s easy for Republicans to use vouchers and sex ed as talking points against Hoffman, and, by extension, their legislative opponents.

“Those are bread-and-butter issues for Republicans to try to stigmatize her on,” Coughlin said. “Whether she takes the bait and engages on that is a separate question. She has the ability to define what she’s for beyond those issues.”

Republican attacks on Hoffman as an elected official picked up in May, after the Arizona Department of Education discovered that eight families in the Window Rock area had improperly been using state voucher funds to pay tuition at a private school just across the New Mexico border.

The 10 students affected qualified for ESA funds, but the program didn’t allow state money to be spent at out-of-state private schools. The department suspended the students’ accounts and sent their families letters demanding that they repay the money spent.

The American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice group headed in Arizona by former lawmaker Steve Smith, promptly filmed an emotional video shared widely by Republican lawmakers panning Hoffman’s implementation of the ESA program. The Legislature scurried in the last days of session to pass a narrowly tailored law that will allow the Navajo families affected to continue using their voucher money out-of-state through the end of the 2019-20 school year, though Republicans signaled they plan to expand the program next year.

Similarly-shot videos from the American Federation for Children began appearing like clockwork each month. A June video featured a Sierra Vista boy who was initially rejected from the ESA program because the active-duty military parent who would qualify him for the program is his stepmother, not a biological parent. One in July showed a Gilbert mother complaining about unusually long phone wait times she dealt with while seeking answers about her son’s ESA.

Each video sparked a cavalcade of criticism from conservative lawmakers. One even led Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, to call for an attorney general investigation of Hoffman.

“It appears that Superintendent Hoffman is letting her personal disapproval of the ESA program affect her legal obligation to follow the law,” Finchem said at the time. “It is unconscionable that an elected official charged with administering education programs would slow-walk a program, which primarily serves children with special needs, because it doesn’t fit her left-wing agenda to end parental authority over school choice. Personal politics should never supersede the law, particularly as it relates to disadvantaged and needy families.”

Sex Ed

During the same period, the Department of Education was drawn into an intense fight over sex education — a topic that, like all other curricula, is predominantly managed at the district level.

In her State of Education Address to the House Education Committee in February, Hoffman called for the repeal of the state’s longstanding “no promo homo” law, enacted as part of a 1991 compromise between a Democratic minority desperate to preserve federal funding for sex education and House Republicans who wanted to avoid any acknowledgement of safe methods of homosexual sex.

In late March, two gay rights organizations sued Hoffman and the Department of Education over that law. Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s refusal to defend the state led the Legislature to vote overwhelmingly to repeal it.

That left the state Board of Education to rewrite its own rules to reflect the new state law, a task the board took up in May and June. It dropped language requiring schools to “promote honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage” in May, but declined to take up a suggestion Hoffman submitted on behalf of state Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network that would require that sex education instruction be “medically and scientifically accurate.”

Hoffman’s support of comprehensive sex education is a sticking point for conservative activists and lawmakers, including Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Both spoke at Gilbert’s American Leadership Academy September 14 about their concerns.

“I don’t feel radical, but I know radical,” Bowers said at the event. “When Kathy Hoffman promotes this, I don’t have any question it’s about radicalizing children.”

He later said he stood by his assessment of Hoffman, but hoped she would prove him wrong. Allen, meanwhile, told attendees they needed to elect Republicans to stand against Democratic plans.

Plan of Attack

Murphy Bannerman, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said Bowers and Allen are prefacing attacks Democrats expect to see in 2020.

“It seems like Allen and Bowers are teaming up to lay the groundwork for Republican 2020 talking points, that parents need to be afraid of what will happen if the Legislature changes,” she said. “They’re trying to rally their base and to get Republicans to turn out and vote down-ticket.”

Candidates want to be able to point to a contrast between “us” and “them,” Coughlin said. So far, Arizonans haven’t been exposed to much of that type of campaigning at the local level because of how thoroughly Republicans have dominated state government during the past decade.

“In the past two cycles, there’s been nobody really to contrast with,” Coughlin said. “It’s been more about ‘look at us, we’re doing great.’”

Most voters don’t know who Hoffman or Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, are, making comparisons to the two of them rather ineffective, GOP political consultant Chris Baker said.

As a consultant for congressional campaigns, Baker has tried to tie his candidates’ Democratic opponents to U.S. House Speaker Pelosi. Name-dropping Pelosi works because Republican and independent voters targeted by those campaigns tend to know who she is and think she’s too far left, but similar mailers in legislative races naming Hoffman or Hobbs instead of a prominent figure like Pelosi wouldn’t have the same effect, Baker said.

“The problem with using Hobbs and Hoffman, is as much as I’m sure they’d probably disagree, most voters don’t know enough about either one of them to be terribly influenced by comparing Democrat candidate A to Katie Hobbs or Kathy Hoffman, simply because most voters don’t know or care about either one of them,” Baker said.

Democrats seeking to win over independents despite negative attacks can actually look to Hoffman as an example of what to do, Alonzo, the Democratic consultant, said.

“What Democrats are going to do is make sure they are telling the consistent authentic story about what they do stand for, and I think it’s good news that in Katie Hobbs and Kathy Hoffman you do have candidates who got elected doing that,” Alonzo said. “They got elected telling the story of their vision, and we know that they’ll continue to do so.”

School choice just fantasy for special needs families


The promise of parental choice in education is a profound lie and it is particularly galling to parents of children with special needs who are exhausted from fighting for our kids. In the half dozen years I have been trying to find a suitable education for my own child in Arizona, I have realized that legislators, lobbyists and (sometimes paid) activist-parents play on the fears we have for our children’s futures – and they are selling us snake oil.

My son has special needs, and three years ago, I withdrew him from public school and enrolled in the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Perversly, I’m the one who got an education. I’ve learned that parental school choice is a fantasy. Facebook groups, created by some ESA parents, are ostensibly sources of information for current and prospective ESA parents but in reality serve as vehicles for expansionist propaganda. I

Pamela Lang
Pamela Lang

myself was excluded from the most prominent one after posting my support for public education. In these closed groups, ESA-promoting administrators advise members on creative ways to game the system, to qualify more and more kids for ESA without limit, and how to navigate around the rules, but what they don’t tell you is that many families won’t find schools willing to take your disabled child, even if your child qualifies for top tier funding.

Setting aside questions of parental infallibility, financial ethics, and state-funded religious education, in Arizona, schools are really the ones who choose, not parents. Definitely not parents of kids with disabilities.

My son’s diagnosis qualified him for top tier funding – nearly $40,000 annually, enough for a full ride at almost any private school in Phoenix. But none of our “choices” wanted us. A highly rated private secular school, now in Paradise Valley, declined because my son needed more academic support than they offered (and at the time they marketed to the special-ed population). An esteemed secular day school in Phoenix wouldn’t even see us after viewing his file, which I was required to send before they would have us on campus. A prep school in North Scottsdale, owned by a leading speech therapist, said, “We’re not for you.” And religious schools? A Jesuit school in Phoenix, Catholic schools in Ahwatukee, Chandler, and even North Phoenix, all adamantly refused to yield to my desperate pleas. One catholic school in South Scottsdale barely let us in the front door. In fact, after being unable to reach the appropriate person to even schedule a meeting, I stopped in unannounced at the moment a public tour was about to commence. They would not let my son and I join it.

A popular Christian school in Tempe/Chandler used to have a reputation for accepting students with special needs but a new administration told me they put an end to this inclusive policy. The famous chain of schools that boast holistic, child-led learning? Hell no. As a parent, I never wanted to leave the public school system, but open enrollment in public districts does not exist for special needs students because they are always at capacity with their local population. Charter schools technically have to take any child, but they easily get around this by hinting to parents that their child’s needs will not be accommodated if they enroll.

Moreover, choosing private school means signing away your child’s right to federal anti-discrimination protections. There are no reliable or consistent standards. Private schools can and do reject or remove a child for any reason, any time. For large parts of the last three years on ESA, my 12-year old son has sat at home because I couldn’t find a willing school. No one mentions this when they glorify ESA and “school choice.”

The ESA expansion lobby promises school choice for all, ignoring the very definition of public education. We already have an education system that provides access to all children; the extent to which it fails our kids today is by design. Not all issues in public education are directly related to funding, but many could be cured with more money. Privatizers deny this but reality proves them wrong. Schools need adequate funding to serve all the students they are required to enroll. The assault on public education hurts all kids, but students like my son are disproportionately harmed.

The privatization agenda also fosters artificial antagonism between parents and pits Arizonans against each other because everyone has to scramble to save their own kid in a universally-underfunded education system. If school choice proponents truly care about kids, they will mandate that charter schools and private schools taking ESA funding accept students with special needs and follow recommended educational plans in accordance with federal law. Then maybe families like mine can get a little closer to having a choice.

Pamela Lang is a Phoenix Realtor and mother to a young son with disabilities.

Senate panel OKs voucher expansion bill

classroom school money chalkboard dollar sign

A Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a school voucher expansion that supporters framed as a civil rights issue  and opponents decried as a repudiation of Arizona voters who overwhelmingly rejected universal vouchers two years ago.

Senate Education Committee chair Paul Boyer and the four other Republicans on his committee voted to approve Boyer’s SB1452, which would extend eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to students from low-income families or who attend a school where 40 percent of students are from poor families. 

Students with disabilities, who live on Native American reservations, whose parents serve in the military or were killed in the line of duty or who attend a D- or F-rated public school are already eligible, as are their siblings. Fewer than 10,000 students now participate, at a cost of about $145 million. 

Boyer, R-Glendale, said his bill will extend a lifeline to struggling students. Low-income students who already lacked advantages in school are now having a harder time because of Covid and an increasing reliance on digital technology, he said. 

“We are trying to help students who are drowning, who are struggling, who are anywhere from 12 to 16 months behind in their education,” he said. 

Paul Boyer
Paul Boyer

Beth Lewis, executive director of the public school advocacy organization Save Our Schools Arizona, warned that passing Boyer’s bill would just result in another statewide vote on the voucher program, which she predicts he’ll lose. Save Our Schools formed in 2017 to refer a universal voucher expansion bill to the ballot, where voters overwhelmingly rejected it in November 2018. 

“We would love to see you on the campaign trail in 2022 talking about tonight’s vote,” Lewis said. 

The bill has support from groups including the American Federation for Children and the Goldwater Institute. Boyer deferred many questions about the bill to Matt Beienburg, Goldwater’s director of education policy, but denied that Beienburg or the Goldwater Institute drafted the legislation. 

A small group of black pastors, mothers and educators joined Boyer outside the Senate before the hearing to garner support for the bill, which they depicted as a civil rights issue. Phoenix Pastor Drew Anderson said he believes he only made it to college and a career in professional football because he received a scholarship to one of the best private high schools in Chicago instead of attending his local public school that had a 57%  dropout rate. 

“School choice is the civil rights issue of this era,” Anderson said. 

Democrats on the committee said they agree with the concerns behind the bill, but they don’t think expanding vouchers is the right approach.

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, said she’s tired of hearing about minorities in the context of school vouchers. Two years ago, Republican lawmakers from the East Valley rushed through last-minute legislation to continue providing vouchers for Navajo students who broke state law by attending a school in New Mexico. Peshlakai and her seatmates who represent the Navajo nation were not involved in drafting those bills. 

“The only time politicians are interested in the poor and the people of color and the minorities is when there’s money to be made in the process,” she said. 

And Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, was skeptical that the bill would end up helping low-income students. As written, the bill applies to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch or receive either targeted assistance through the Title I programs — but it also could cover rich or middle-class students who happen to attend a Title I school, defined as a school where at least 40 percent of students live in poverty.

“This is for all practical purposes a universal voucher,” Marsh said. 

Marsh also objected to a portion of the bill that would require school districts in wealthy areas with high tax revenue who don’t qualify for additional state aid to use their property tax funding to support students who would have attended schools in those districts but instead use a voucher. She introduced an amendment to require a two-thirds vote on the bill because she believes it constitutes an increase in state revenues, but Republicans on the committee voted it down.

Boyer’s bill also will allow students to use their voucher funds for transportation costs, including a bus pass, and it would permit parents of high schoolers to use another program that provides scholarships offset by tax credits to attend private schools. 


State high court says vote on voucher expansion can proceed

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8, 2018, after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Arizona Supreme Court today cleared the way for voters to have their say on the expansion of school vouchers in November.  

The justices affirmed Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret Mahoney’s January ruling that state law at the time Proposition 305 was filed did not allow individuals to challenge petition drives.

The Legislature repealed an individual’s right to challenge initiatives and referenda in 2015. That provision was reinstated last year, but took effect on Aug. 9 – the day after Save Our Schools Arizona submitted more than 90,000 valid petition signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office.

“We’re just really happy to get that distraction out of the way,” said SOS Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker. “We’ve known all along that this was the only reasonable result, so we’re ready to put it behind and start being able to focus 100 percent on educating voters about why Prop. 305 harms our schools.”

The only thing that could keep the issue off the ballot now is if lawmakers who support vouchers make any sort of change in the law. That would void the petitions since the bill they referred to the ballot would no longer exist.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said the Legislature has three options: repeal the voucher expansion law, which he said was “exceedingly unlikely,” repeal and replace, or let it go to the ballot.

“I think it’s one of the latter two issues many of us are going to be discussing,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times.

Personally, Mesnard said, “We’re perfectly willing to have the discussion with the voters at the ballot. We would certainly do that.”

Supporters of the voucher expansion signed into law last year also questioned what they called irregularities in the signature gathering process.

Those claims included that entire petitions should be tossed because notaries’ signatures did not exactly match their stamps and that circulators made false claims about the expansion law to convince people to oppose it.

However, advocates’ concerns were ultimately of no consequence because their challenge was not valid at the time.

Penich-Thacker said that “the timing couldn’t be more productive for us” as tension continues to build among public school teachers.

As the court’s ruling came down, teachers from across the state rallied at the Capitol, inspired by the successful strike efforts of their counterparts in West Virginia. Nine schools in the Pendergast Elementary School District shut down for the day because of teachers calling out sick to participate, the first mass exodus of teachers in Arizona this year.

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services and Ben Giles contributed to this report.

The Breakdown: Between the lines

docOne Democratic lawmaker wants to spend 2020 tackling a unique form of gerrymandering, and argues that inmates in Arizona prisoners shouldn’t count towards the population of the legislative district that the prison is drawn in.

And some parents are complaining of long waits to ask questions of the Arizona Department of Education when they need answers about the state’s voucher program. Is this a new problem, or just another example of an underfunded state agency?

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes and Stitcher.


Music in this episode included “Creative Minds,” “Funky Element” and “Energy” by Bensound.

The Breakdown: Last laugh


Gov. Doug Ducey showed up Thursday for this Independence Day event wearing sneakers made by the company whose conduct he had criticized just the day before. (Twitter/Coconino County Democratic Party)
Gov. Doug Ducey showed up Thursday for this Independence Day event wearing sneakers made by the company whose conduct he had criticized just the day before. (Twitter/Coconino County Democratic Party)

Arizona kicked off the holiday weekend with a fight with Nike that put the governor in the national spotlight. Was that the intent all along, and what might that signal for Gov. Doug Ducey’s future plans?

The state Department of Education narrowly avoided its own controversy  as it reversed a stance of step-parents of children applying for school vouchers.

And times always seem to be tough for the Corporation Commission. We’ll have an update on the latest from the utility regulators and APS.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes and Stitcher.


Music in this episode included “Creative Minds,” “Funky Element” and “Energy” by Bensound.

Utah students could benefit from proposed Arizona voucher expansion


The Legislature has another bill that would appear to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program to a small group of students living near the Arizona-Utah border. 

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, introduced HB 2898, which would expand ESA vouchers to non-public schools within two miles of the state border for students who live on reservations or who reside in a town with fewer than 10,000 residents in a county with a population between 150,000 and 500,000, if the town straddles the border between Arizona and a neighboring state.

Like the similar expansion effort in the Senate from Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who’s sponsoring an effort for students on the Navajo Nation, Cobb’s bill also targets a specific group of people.

In 2019, three students living in the polygamous town of Colorado City were told they could not use ESA money on their school, which relocated into the neighboring town of Hildale, Utah. The Arizona Department of Education informed the family the school would no longer qualify since it is not in state, but told them they could appeal the decision.

“That’s just not right,” Cobb said. 

The department said the decision was never appealed. 

Colorado City, a town known for its association with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has a population of just under 5,000 and crosses the border with Utah. It’s not the only town that fits the bill, but seems to be the most notable.

The bill was only assigned to the Appropriations and Rules Committees, not Education, which would typically be the committee to hear this type of bill. Notably no ESA bills in the Senate in 2019 were assigned to that chamber’s Education Committee likely due to not having enough votes to pass. Cobb, the Appropriations Committee chair, said she has nothing to do with committee assignments and does not know why it wasn’t assigned to education. 

Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers said he assigned it to Appropriations because it was Cobb’s bill, and that he didn’t recall there being a concern about getting enough votes in the Education Committee.  

Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, one of five Democrats on the House Education Committee, said he does not support the expansion because he thinks Arizona taxpayer dollars should only be spent in Arizona. 

“I think it would be misguided for us as a state to say that we’re going to be good stewards of your resources and then allow those resources to go to a Utah private institution,” he said. 

Reginald Bolding
Reginald Bolding

Bolding said there needs to be a good enough reason to ask voters whether they are comfortable with taxpayer money being used out-of-state, but this example would not qualify. 

The controversial idea of expanding the voucher program has widely been seen as a partisan issue, so it’s nothing new for a Democrat to oppose this latest attempt, but Bolding believes the schools in-state should be prioritized ahead of those not.

“We should have schools that are providing a quality education no matter where they’re at. So if that’s creating another school that’s high quality in Colorado City that can serve the constituents there, then that’s what we have to do,” Bolding said.

It sets a bad precedent to have students abandon their community because a school may not be working well, he said. 

Bolding said his biggest concern is where ESA expansions would end if this were to pass. The program began just to help students with disabilities attend a private or alternative school that better suits their needs. Little by little it expanded to more students. Its first year had roughly 150 students who qualified, and latest numbers put that total around 7,000. 

“I think any further expansion … would be misguided,” Bolding said.

Voters soundly rejected an expansion effort in 2018 by a two-to-one margin, but the Legislature has continued its attempts. In addition, Gov. Doug Ducey has put his support behind Allen’s Senate bill, which has already cleared both Education and Rules committees and will likely get a floor vote soon. 

Voucher bill attempts to privatize education


The current, aggressive push to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) does nothing to address the systemic education challenges we face in Arizona.

It is a dangerous attack on our public education systems and our state’s economic future. As a business community, our priority is to ensure that all students have access to a top-quality school that meets students’ needs and interests.

Arizona leaders should focus on effectively funding public education and supporting innovative programs that improve academic outcomes.

The time is now. Public education is the single most powerful economic development tool we have as a state.

ESAs were originally designed to serve a small population of students – they were never meant to replace public education or to serve all students.

A full expansion of ESAs is nothing more than a boutique scheme to address a non-existent need for private school subsidies.

Jim Swanson
Jim Swanson

While being marketed as a solution for low-income students and students of color – the students whom data tells us need the most wide-scale, institutional support – SB1452 is the most offensive of the private school voucher bills proposed this session. The bill would make roughly 700,000 Arizona students eligible for ESAs – a 280% increase in a single move. This is nothing more than a bold attempt to privatize education.

There’s a lot wrong with this bill, but the worst is the fact that rather than focus on supporting low-income students of color, many of whom are already eligible, SB1452 will make many more middle- and high-income white students eligible for taxpayer-subsidized vouchers, exploiting the impoverished communities in favor of further subsidizing the tiny fraction (as few as approximately 5%) of Arizona families choosing to home-school, private and parochial schools.

John Graham
John Graham

Greater Phoenix Leadership, Southern Arizona Leadership Council and Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance, representing more than 200 CEOs across Arizona, have made it clear that they are against the expansion of vouchers in Arizona and have voiced support for our public education systems, from early childhood to higher education. Business leaders and voters are like-minded – we have consistently come together for public education with a focus on equity and access. Instead of proposing unsustainable ways to make 70% of students eligible for private school vouchers, we need to make the public schools better, stronger and more successful.

What our state needs is crystal clear – an equitable, fully funded, high-quality public education system that serves all students across Arizona, no matter the zip code or income level. We have fallen too far behind and the only way we catch up – the only way we move the needle and bring Arizona to a competitive, robust and morally conscionable state – is to focus on the public education funding formula. Programs like private school vouchers have a long history of excluding and segregating our communities rather than including and supporting them. ESAs don’t get us where we need to be.

We need to put our heads together – across the business, education and political realms – and finally execute big changes to the funding formula and other mechanisms that have proven inefficient and worse, inequitable. Now is the time to focus on what moves all our students forward – working together to properly fund the schools serving 95% of Arizona students.

Jim Swanson is president and CEO of Kitchell Corporation. John Graham is chairman and CEO of Sunbelt Holdings. They chair the Greater Phoenix Leadership Education Standing Committee.


Voucher expansion on hold as effort to kill campaign begins

A Save Our Schools Arizona volunteer hands off a box of signatures to another helper. The anti-school voucher expansion group delivered 111,540 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
A Save Our Schools Arizona volunteer hands off a box of signatures to another helper. The anti-school voucher expansion group delivered 111,540 signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

School voucher expansion legislation is on hold after Save Our Schools Arizona delivered, by the group’s count, 111,540 signatures today to refer the law to the 2018 general election ballot.

A yellow school bus decked out in SOS Arizona banners carried the signatures to a loading deck below the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office. Volunteers in red SOS Arizona shirts loaded wagons full of petition boxes, and children dressed as professionals carted them to the building.

Children of Save Our Schools Arizona volunteers cart boxes of signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Children of Save Our Schools Arizona volunteers cart boxes of signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Beyond the spectacle, spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker was clear that the effort to quash the expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program was far from over.

“The supporters of voucher expansion will tell you this is about choice, but so far, the only choice that SB 1431 respects is that of out-of-state, dark money groups who created it,” she said to crowd gathered after the signatures were delivered. “What about the choice of 111,540 Arizona voters who want to have their say?”

Penich-Thacker said she received word that opponents were already asking that signatures be invalidated – signatures that were still in the boxes.

By the time SOS Arizona delivered its signatures, opponents had already made their first effort to hinder the campaign.

Republican elections attorney Timothy La Sota, who represents the Arizona Republican Party, sent a letter to the secretary of state requesting that it invalidate all signatures collected by three of the campaign’s paid petition gatherers on the grounds that they registered incorrectly with the state.

Elections Director Eric Spencer said La Sota alleged that one of the three had impermissibly listed a post office box as his home address, while the other had information missing from the street addresses they used in their registration. Spencer said he didn’t know how many signatures might be affected.

Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker addresses a crowd of volunteers and reporters after submitting more than 110,000 signatures to refer school voucher legislation to the 2018 ballot. The signatures were enough to put the legislation temporarily on hold on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker addresses a crowd of volunteers and reporters after submitting more than 110,000 signatures to refer school voucher legislation to the 2018 ballot. The signatures were enough to put the legislation temporarily on hold on Aug. 8. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

In response, Dawn Penich-Thacker accused ESA supporters of trying to stifle democracy.

“Instead of listening to their constituents, they are plotting ways to squash us,” she said. “Let me be clear: Every lawsuit to throw out a voter signature is an attempt to silence us. Every challenge to a retiree who spent this summer getting signatures is an affront to our democracy in Arizona. Every trick they pull out of their deep pockets is putting their political ambitions ahead of the future of Arizona.”

She predicted supporters of the legislation would use “fear tactics” to sway voters and exploit the current rules around ESAs, which, she said, SOS Arizona does not oppose.

The anti-voucher expansion side will certainly be up against legal challenges and high-dollar investments against SOS Arizona’s cause.

Hours before the signature delivery, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation joined the fray by announcing in a press release it will be “spending six figures to tell Arizonans the facts about how charter schools, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, and other policies are enabling more Arizona children to obtain a quality education.”

“The facts are clear: Arizona schools have made great strides by increasing the opportunity for all Arizonans to get a quality education,” said Andrew Clark, the foundation’s state director. “Arizona has five of the seven best schools in the nation, led the nation in academic gains for six consecutive years, and has the top charter schools in the nation. Arizona is doing something right, and families and taxpayers deserve to hear the facts.”

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who sponsored Senate Bill 1431 for the voucher expansion, put out her own statement on the halting of the voucher expansion legislation triggered by the submission of the referendum campaign’s signatures.

Lesko said she spoke with three “confused and upset moms” Monday night who had already selected new schools and purchased uniforms for their children. They are now left wondering what to do now that the legislation has been put on hold, Lesko said, and they are the ones hurting.

“I support public schools AND I support giving more choices to parents,” she said in her press statement. “I hope someday opponents of my legislation realize we can do both and will work with me to improve education for everyone so no other Arizona parents have to feel the way they do today.”

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Eric Spencer said the final verdict on valid signatures submitted Tuesday is not expected until the last week of September at the earliest.

However, his estimate is absent litigation, which Spencer said is “100 percent ensured.”

And without a looming ballot-printing deadline, a legal battle is likely to be long drawn out and expensive.

Jeremy Duda contributed to this report.

Voucher expansion proposal puts Udall, John on the spot

The Senate’s passage of a massive voucher expansion will test the resolve of two Republican House members who killed the expansion earlier this year.  

In the Arizona Legislature, there’s a common yet controversial practice of shoving policy priorities into the budget as a way to court support from lawmakers who may have otherwise opposed it.  

Senate Republicans achieved this when they passed 11 budget bills in the wee hours of June 23 with language from a Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, bill that would expand empowerment scholarship accounts by more than 7,000%.  

Under the current program, roughly 10,000 students are eligible, but Boyer’s plan would expand that to at least 716,000, according to figures from the state’s budget analysts with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. That is more than 60% of all Arizona K-12 students.  

The ESA program was developed so parents could opt out of public education in favor of a private school or an alternative that may better suit their child. It’s entirely taxpayer funded and in order to qualify for the program, students must fit into one of several groups such as having a disability, a military parent or attending a D or F rated school. 

Boyer on Wednesday shot down speculation that he and Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, had reached a deal that he would vote for her policy to require teachers to offer multiple sides of “controversial” subjects, and she would vote for his ESA expansion, both of which were wrapped into a 195-page amendment to the K-12 budget reconciliation bill Tuesday.  

He said Udall is still a “hard no” on his ESA expansion proposal, putting the fate of the budget in question.  

Joel John
Joel John

Boyer’s ESA expansion bill went through a whirlwind of a year in two different iterations, but after originally passing the Senate 16-14, never received a vote in the House because Udall and freshman Rep. Joel John, R-Buckeye, opposes expanding the program. 

Udall teaches math, and John is a former public-school teacher. Opponents typically view ESA expansions as an attack on public schools in favor of private schools. 

Boyer said he hopes Udall won’t “blow up the budget over making sure that poor, minority students can get to the school of their choice.”  

“Like I told her, that’s ultimately her decision,” he said.  

Rebecca Gau, the executive director for education group Stand for Children Arizona, said both John and Udall have “shown backbone before” when it comes to holding their ground on education policy, but the situation is dire now. 

“It’s harder to do that when things are down to the wire, but that’s also when it’s most important,” Gau said. “Standing up for the right thing is only brave when it’s hard.” 

That amendment would allow the county attorney or attorney general to initiate a suit in the county where a teacher may have violated the statute by offering one-sided teaching. Teachers face disciplinary action up to losing their license if found to be in violation. 

Michelle Udall
Michelle Udall

In reality, Boyer said he worked with other senators to remove the language he didn’t like from the Udall policy, including no longer allowing county attorneys or the attorney general to investigate classrooms.  

“That was my original heartburn,” he said.  

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a universal ESA expansion on the ballot in a 2018 veto referendum by 30 percentage points, halting a priority bill from Gov. Doug Ducey, who is adamantly in favor of expanding the ESA program.  

While Boyer’s proposal, which passed the Senate 16-14, isn’t universal, it’s still a dramatic expansion.  

Udall didn’t respond to a text or call, though House leaders have insisted that they have the votes to move the budget – if all 31 Republicans show up to work. John also could not be reached.  

The lengthy amendment, which Senate Democrats and the public could not review in full before it was approved down party lines, came in the form of a 195-page amendment from Senate President Karen Fann. It makes additional sweeping changes to the ESA program, including language from a failed bill Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, proposed this year that would expand it to children of all veterans. Children of active-duty military personnel or whose parents died in combat are already eligible.  

The major expansion covers students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.  Children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals; those with incomes above 130% but below 185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. 

The maneuver from Senate Republicans puts additional pressure on Udall and John to either force an amendment to remove the language or vote for something they don’t like in favor of completing the budget and adjourning for the year with only days to go before the fiscal year ends. Any amendment changes in the House would need the Senate to concur or vote again on the bill.  

Boyer has been a vocal critic of mixing policy priorities in the budget bills, but has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of that practice this year. 

He said he would speak with his leadership team about avoiding this in future sessions.  

“If you want to give members the ability to get a vote on their policy bill, then put it up before the budget and let it live or die,” he said. “Don’t throw it in the budget.”  

Gau, a Republican, said between the addition to expand the ESA program tucked into a nearly 200-page amendment and the tax cut that predominantly benefits the wealthiest taxpayers and targeting the voter-approved Proposition 208, of which she helped succeed at the ballot, the fight needs to continue after session is complete.  

She said education groups were going to meet to figure out a plan for a veto referendum to halt the largest tax cut in Arizona history, and also look into the constitutionality of Arizona’s single-subject rule for budget bills and maybe take it to court. 

Voucher foes turn in petition signatures

Foes of universal school vouchers turned in 141,714 signatures Friday to give voters the last word.

But whether it gets that far depends on what happens next.

Hanging in the balance is the plan approved earlier this year by Republican-controlled legislature to provide vouchers of taxpayer funds to any of the 1.1 million students in public schools to instead attend private or parochial schools. Those vouchers, which average close to $7,000, also could be used for costs of home schooling.

State and county election officials perform the first reviews to determine, after invalid signatures are eliminated, whether there are still 118,823 left in the petitions gathered by Save Our Schools to hold up enactment until the 2024 general election. That’s when voters would get to decide whether to ratify or reject it.

Beth Lewis

After that, however, supporters of what are formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts will be doing their own examination of the petitions with an eye on disqualifying even more signatures — and leaving the referendum petition drive short of the required number.

“We will be ready to defend the parents of our state,” said Steve Smith, state director of American Federation for Children.

“We would very much make sure that the signatures that are turned in, that those are valid and there’s not an attempt to derail this program through invalid and improperly collected signatures,” added Matt Beienburg, director of education policy, Goldwater Institute. “So that would be very much, I think, a starting point.”

Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, acknowledged that the signatures submitted provide a margin of error of just 20%. And companies that collect petitions generally seek a 25% cushion.

She said, though, organizers are confident there are enough valid signatures. And at least part of that, Lewis said, is because virtually all the collection was done by volunteers who, as a whole, have a higher validity rate.

And there’s something else.

Opponents of ballot measures routinely seek to disqualify petitions gathered by paid circulators who are required to comply with a host of technical requirements. Those rules, however, don’t apply to volunteers.

Even if it clears all those hurdles, there’s one more potential snag to getting that public vote in 2024.

Legislative supporters could simply vote next year to repeal the legislation, make a few changes, and reenact it. That act would make the petition drive legally moot, forcing foes to start over again next year.

The record suggests voter antipathy toward making more students eligible for vouchers.

Lawmakers approved a vast expansion of the program in 2017, only to have Save Our School refer the measure to the 2018 ballot. It was rejected by a margin of close to 2 to 1.

Toma, ESAs, vouchers, Save Our Schools Arizona, private schools, tuition, charter schools, public schools, AEA
Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria

But House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said that occurred because some voucher supporters opposed the 2017 plan because it had some limits on the number of vouchers that would have been available. He said they feared that voter ratification would have frozen that limit into law.

By contrast, he said, the new version has no limits, eliminating that concern.

Lewis rejected Toma’s explanation – and his contention that people are more likely to support universal vouchers now than they were four years ago.

“I was out in the field in 2017 and 2018 and people were confused,” she told Capitol Media Services. “They were like, ‘What’s a voucher?’ ”

Now, she said, there is a better understanding of the concept of using tax dollars to send children to private and parochial schools.

“They know exactly what this is,” Lewis said. “And they don’t want it,” Lewis said.

Central to the issue is the question of whether public funds should be used for private education.

school choice, Heritage Foundation, Ducey, Florida, K-12, private schools, public schools
Matt Beienburg

“At the end of the day the purpose of the ESA program and school choice is to give parents the ability to pursue the best education for their kids, regardless of what form it comes in,” said Beienburg. “We are focused on individual student aid, not an institution or a particular form of education.”

Lewis acknowledged that there is some sentiment for the concept of “school choice.”

“But they don’t want their dollars going to unaccountable private schools,” she said.

One version of the legislation included a requirement for annual testing of the students who get those tax dollars, like what occurs in public schools, with results reported on a school-by-school basis. But that requirement was removed before the final bill went to Gov. Doug Ducey for his signature. Beienburg said such testing isn’t necessary.

“Nobody is going to be a stronger advocate for their children than a parent,” he said.

Lewis said that’s based on a false premise.

“I’ve been a teacher in Arizona for 12 years and a parent for just as long,” she said.

“And I can tell you that parents don’t know as well as teachers whether they’re learning,” Lewis continued, saying schools need certified teachers who can make those evaluations.

And then there’s the question of who is picking up the tab.

“If a school wants to take public funds, they need to take public accountability,” she said.

Backers have promoted universal vouchers as a way for families of limited means to have access to the same education choices as those who already can afford private school tuition.

Lewis said she understands that sentiment. And she said lawmakers could have crafted a measure with “means testing” to limit the new vouchers to those in real need.

“And we encouraged them to do so,” Lewis said. “But they wrote a bill that benefits all students.”

Kathy Hoffman

That has come into sharp focus with the state Department of Education reporting that more than 75% of the 10,338 applications for the new universal vouchers received so far have come from students not now in public schools, leading state officials to conclude these were students whose parents already were paying to send them to private schools. At about $7,000 apiece, that comes out to more than $54 million.

That figure exceeds the $30 million that legislative budget analysts told lawmakers before they enacted the law would be the first-year cost of providing vouchers to those already in private schools or those being home schooled. That doesn’t count another $2.2 million in new administrative costs.

And by the third year, the report said, the price tag for paying for kids picking up vouchers versus paying their own way will approach $120 million.

That is above and beyond the $176 million the state is now paying for vouchers for students who have been eligible under prior standards.

Vouchers, first approved in 2011, were limited to students whose special needs could not be met in public schools.

Since that time there has been an incremental expansion of eligibility, to the point where vouchers are now available to foster children, children of military families, reservation residents and students in schools rated D or F.

The new law would scrap all preconditions, potentially allowing vouchers to go to all 1.1 million youngsters now in public schools.

“With the current status of applicants, it is not achieving those goals,” said state schools chief Kathy Hoffman. “Instead, it is just a taxpayer funded coupon for the wealthy.”

Voucher vote creates dilemma for school-choice supporters

Stacks of voters' signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office on Aug. 8 after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Stacks of voters’ signatures were delivered to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office on Aug. 8, 2018, after Save Our Schools Arizona collected more than 110,000 signatures in three months. If it survives legal challenges, the referendum will appear on the 2018 general election ballot as Proposition 305. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

If voters approve the voucher expansion law in November, many believe those changes would be locked in under the Voter Protection Act.

That means modifying the statute in the future would be incredibly difficult, and that is where the problem lies for the school-choice crowd.

And that’s also why the opposing sides in the debate over the expansion of school vouchers in Arizona may have found an unexpected common ground in Proposition 305 – that its passage at the ballot box may not be the best way forward for school-choice advocates and critics alike.

Indeed, the prospect of locking that law in place has been enough to give even the staunchest supporters of Empower Scholarship Accounts pause.

Kim Martinez
Kim Martinez

“If Prop. 305 passes, it could hinder our ability to make crucial improvements to the ESA program,” said Kim Martinez, a spokeswoman for the pro-voucher American Federation for Children.

“It is entirely possible that a ‘no’ vote might give more children the opportunity to use an ESA than a ‘yes’ vote.”

Arizona has had vouchers since 2011, when they were originally earmarked for children with special needs. Lawmakers have step-by-step expanded eligibility to include foster children, reservation residents and students attending D or F schools.

A “yes” on Prop. 305 would keep SB1431, the expansion of ESAs, in place as approved by the Legislature in 2017.

SB1431 sought to expand eligibility to all public school students to use public money to attend private or religious schools, and would increase the cap on enrollment to 30,000 students by the 2022-2023 school year.

Arizona has roughly 1 million public school students, and school choice advocates want to make each one eligible to receive a voucher.

But if the cap of 30,000 students becomes voter-protected, expanding it in the future will be a challenge.

Whether the Voter Protection Act applies to a citizen-initiated referendum on laws has long been the subject of debate. Many say whether the outcome on Prop. 305 is “yes” or “no” makes the law voter-protected and will likely be a question for the courts to hash out.

To amend a voter-protected program, legislators must pass an amendment with a three-fourths vote and whatever change they make must further the intent of the original measure.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (Photo by Katie Campbell/ Arizona Capitol Times)
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (Photo by Katie Campbell/ Arizona Capitol Times)

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said lawmakers rarely pass legislation intending it to be “the end all, be all final product.” And if he and many of his colleagues could go back, they would likely make a few tweaks to SB1431, knowing now that it could soon be set in stone.

Though he voted for the bill in 2017, Mesnard said he’s among Republicans and school-choice advocates who are undecided on how he’ll vote on Prop. 305 because its success at the ballot box might mean voter protection.

“On the one hand, I’d like it to pass because I supported the policy,” he said. “But on the other hand, being unable to navigate moving forward would be very frustrating.”

Despite his dilemma on Prop. 305, Mesnard supports the expansion of school choice.

Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots group responsible for Prop. 305, recognizes that ESA advocates have not actually changed their minds about the broader issue.

Save Our Schools Arizona spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker joined thousands of public education advocates who rallied at the Capitol on March 28, 2018. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Dawn Penich-Thacker (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

“This is just one milestone in what I think everyone has to realize is a long battle,” Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, said.

Whatever happens with Prop. 305, she said she’s certain Republicans will return as early as next session to launch a new expansion effort.

“If it can’t happen through Prop 305, no big deal,” she said. “They’ll introduce a bill next year

We must keep the heat on voucher backers


There is unquestionably little concern in the Arizona Capitol regarding the citizens of Arizona. This is a scary and sad situation that needs to be watched, dragged out into the light of day, and eventually, rectified.

While this statement more or less applies to many areas, the issue of school vouchers, or Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, is the most blatant.

Jeff Fortney
Jeff Fortney

When citizens organized and stopped SB1431 – the universal expansion of vouchers – from going forward, they accomplished something never done before. They gathered over 111,000 in 90 days to put this on the ballot.  Next, they mobilized to make sure Arizonans across the state understood the harmful effects of ESAs draining taxpayer funds from public schools. And that worked too. By an overwhelming 2 to 1 margin, Proposition 305 went down in defeat, sending a clear message that Arizonans want taxpayer money to stay in public education – not to be syphoned off, bit by bit, to private schools, parochial schools, home schools with little oversight and less accountability.

Luckily, our local legislators and governor acknowledged the call, admitted defeat, and buried the issue once and for all. Just kidding. No, their response was to start working to expand vouchers almost immediately. They didn’t go all-out crazy, trying to expand it universally. They are trying to inch it forward bit by bit.  They are proposing bills to increase the number and scope of students allowed to take advantage of these ESAs.

Why? Because the majority in the legislature and our governor are desperate to get this done. They want privatization of public schools here in Arizona so that they don’t have to deal with the continual funding issues. When SB1431 passed, Governor Ducey celebrated by sharing the three tweets he received congratulating him –  ultra-conservative Grover Norquist, Jeb Bush, and Betsy DeVos.  When SB1431 got put on hold, Ducey doubled-down stating from a Koch Brothers’ retreat that he wasn’t elected to play small ball… that this issue (vouchers) was important to Arizona.

So, the will of the people has gone ignored. The majority of Arizonans, 95 percent, prefer the public schools of Arizona and want them funded.  They are not against school choice. They are not wanting to dismantle the current ESA system. These are both frequent comments that seem aimed at dividing the public against one another.

At a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, Save Our Schools argued against yet another bill that expands the scope of vouchers, while ESA parents with children in tow, espoused how ESAs have been a godsend for their child.  The chair of the Finance Committee, J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, upon hearing from SOS Arizona co-founder Dawn Penich-Thacker that no one wants to take ESAs away from these families, seemed shocked. Really? This has been an ongoing issue in Arizona for two years and he’s just now getting this? Questionable. However, he was not hiding his acceptance of using taxpayer dollars to let families send their students to private parochial schools. He stated that this was acceptable since public schools don’t teach this indoctrination curriculum. This seems to be a clear abuse of the separation of church and state in the constitution. Senator Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, read something he said was in the constitution that backed up a parent’s choice of where to school their children. He conveniently ignored the fact that there is no mention of taxpayers paying for whatever education a parent chooses.

So, the fight continues because those in power do not care. So we watch. We attend hearings. We fill committee rooms. We report. We post. We tweet. We expose. We write these letters. We keep pushing the truth against those that want to twist, ignore or deny the facts. Then we make sure that come November 2020, we help citizens connect the dots. The dots that connect legislative votes and actions with the nefarious agendas they are pushing. It’s one thing to vote down a horrible bill like Proposition 305, it’s another to vote out the legislators that got the voucher ball rolling in the first place.

— Jeff Fortney has been teaching special education in Arizona since 2004.

When it’s working for students, let it work


Arizona’s education story over the past three decades arose from a focus on some large-scale policy changes whose existence allowed educators to bring our public system of schooling to the top of the nation in academic achievement gains. With much left to do, we cannot reverse the policies that led to this progress for students.

Arizona’s academic gains were partially reversed when the pandemic led too many students to lose out on instruction and the joys of being together in person with friends and trusted teachers. Clearly, this plays a fundamentally important role in academic success, and as a nation, we went against our better instincts.

Lisa Graham Keegan

The current moment demands that we honestly assess the policies and subsequent actions that led to better outcomes for students. The correct decisions now are urgently needed.

While academic advantages begin in the home and according to choices parents either can or cannot make on behalf of their children, a successful education happens at the individual school, in interactions between teachers and students. Period. No policies can create those schooling successes – policies either enable them or prevent them.

Arizona’s most successful policies have empowered parents and school leaders by doing a few key things: First, our student funding formula is applied statewide, is based on individual student needs, and moves with the student. The state has repeatedly sought to make sure that equitable and dedicated funds follow students ALL THE WAY into the school or learning environment that their family chooses.

Perhaps most critically and for the past 30 years, we have sought to allow families to choose from among more and more schools that can best fit their child’s needs at no personal cost; and we have encouraged teachers and other education leaders to create new schooling options for families that can be part of a vast array of options. We added free open enrollment access to public district schools and what is now a high performing sector and public charter schools in the 90’s and have since added publicly supported access to private schools via Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. This ability to choose a school directly, and the companion ability of educators to start and run their own schools or systems of schools has transformed Arizona’s education landscape and led to the achievement gains of the past two decades.

Data tells us that when parents move their child from school to school with an intention to find a better academic or social fit, achievement improves. This matters enormously. Schools and teachers are not widgets that can be blindly assigned to students without consideration of fit. More essentially, no children should be assigned to schools without a proven ability to maximize student potential. A parent’s judgment as to the best school fit is a key driver of academic improvement in the state.

The most important catalyst for achievement gains have been our schools themselves. The power of parents to choose a school can’t result in achievement gains without the ability of school leaders to offer more and better high-quality schooling options that will prove to be a strong fit for their students. Through its policies, the state will either encourage the improvement of schools, encourage and support the development of new, high-quality schools, or provide broader access to already existing excellent schools. Adversely, the state can thwart these powerful tools for best school fit and academic gain.

A focus on achievement gains was the driving force behind the creation of Results-based Funding in 2016, a policy that rapidly succeeded in making achievement gains in the core subjects an important and rewarded goal. A key feature of Results-based Funding from inception has been to double the reward amounts to schools in traditionally lower-income communities. The work here is critical, and the investment has helped these highly successful educators expand to serve even more of the students trying to get into their schools.

These are urgent times. The pandemic cost our students dearly, moving the state from the fastest academic achieving state in the country to one dealing with academic losses in nearly every school. This is no time to abandon fact-based, proven approaches to education policy. Choice of schools is essential and an expected right of families; innovation in schooling is the rightful prerogative of educators that has driven improvement in our state for decades; and rewarding schools that succeed for their students are all powerful and proven.

Where we should look for policy change is in ways to strengthen our education investment across the state. One of the best ways would be to maximize the excess school facility space across the state that has been created by all this student movement and local declines in enrollment. The Common Sense Institute recently reported that this excess space across the state is valued at $3.3 billion dollars. Failing to manage this situation directly impacts our ability to fund our students in the classrooms they choose.

At a time of urgent need for educational advancement, Arizona’s powerful student-based policies empower families and educators to take actions that create better futures for our children and for that state. We should follow their lead.

Lisa Graham Keegan is Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors at the Common Sense Institute Arizona and a former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Would you take away the ESA program from parents, or not


To Save Our Schools Arizona and the Secular Coalition for Arizona:

Families participating in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program received a warm and welcome reassurance at the Senate Finance Committee hearing on SB 1395, a bill that would alleviate many of the administrative struggles ESA parents have faced in navigating the program’s rules.

In particular, Save Our Schools (SOS) Arizona co-founder Dawn Penich-Thacker declared at Wednesday’s hearing in unequivocal terms (emphasis is mine):

Matt Beienburg
Matt Beienburg

“No one is trying to get rid of the ESA program … I am here speaking as a leader of Save Our Schools Arizona and I am clarifying that we and nobody, no other organization that I know, is trying to get rid of the ESA program. We are not trying to kick out existing families. We are not trying to reduce current eligibility criteria. Those things get said. It is a fear-mongering tactic that I have personally heard. I have personally asked the people saying this not to say it. So again I want to say it in this public setting… No one is trying to end, reduce, or limit the existing ESA program.”

This is fantastic news, and I’m sure nearly every ESA parent and child would share the reaction of the Committee’s Chairman, Senator J.D. Mesnard: “I am thrilled from what I’m hearing that we don’t want to roll it back. That we apparently are OK with the ESA plan design at least as it is today. That is the new common denominator between both sides. I am excited to hear that.”

While I would like to share in the enthusiasm, I am deeply troubled by the accompanying testimony from both SOS and the Secular Coalition that suggest Ms. Penich-Thacker’s assurances may be well-intentioned but undermined by the organizations’ broader statements.

First, while Ms. Penich-Thacker noted in very ironclad terms that “no one is trying to end, reduce, or limit the existing ESA program,” the representative of the Secular Coalition declared that “choice should not come at the expense of public taxpayer dollars … so we urge you to consider amending this bill to exclude…religious education from the program.”

It is difficult to reconcile the assurance that no one—particularly no organization—seeks to reduce or limit the ESA program, when one of the leading organizations present at nearly every ESA bill hearing is explicitly urging that families be excluded from using the ESA program for schools that may be religiously affiliated.

Second, in objecting to a provision regarding ongoing evaluations of special needs ESA students, Ms. Penich-Thacker herself stated: “I am in a military family, but we’ll be done with the military in 3 years. Should my child still receive an ESA in 10 years even though we are no longer an active duty military family or my other child that accommodations are not required? No, there should be evaluations. Taxpayers would expect that.”

My hope is that this reflects an honest misunderstanding of the current ESA eligibility provisions in law, because these provisions in fact make it extremely clear that her children would continue to remain eligible for an ESA after her husband’s military service ends: Under the existing program, any student who is “a previous recipient” or “the sibling of a current or previous ESA recipient” is eligible for the program for their entire K-12 career.

Yet Ms. Penich-Thacker appears to argue that families whose military service concludes partway through their child’s education, for example, should be forced to pull their student out of their private schooling arrangement or find other means of paying the tuition and costs on their own. This would most certainly require a rollback of the program’s eligibility provisions.

Given my objections to the overwhelmingly dishonest portrayal of SB 1395 as an expansion bill using the exact “fear-mongering tactics” Ms. Penich-Thacker denounced (and indeed there have been, and are, other bills dealing with ESA expansion, but entirely separate from SB 1395), I do not wish to go the same route in accusing either SOS or the Secular Coalition of seeking to deconstruct the ESA program if that is truly not your intent.

However, I do ask: Will you reaffirm Ms. Penich-Thacker’s statement that you would in no way “reduce or limit” the existing ESA program, even for those students whose refuge and academic hope amid backgrounds in the foster care system or failing public schools may come, for example, from a school named for the saints? Is it indeed your position that Arizona families are made better off by the existence of the ESA program at the very least as an outlet for the disadvantaged populations currently served?

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.