By Corinne Murdock |
Arizona’s school choice program appears to have been undermined by neglect from former leadership, based on details of the program’s inherited state by the new administration.
AZ Free News spoke with Christine Accurso this week about the inherited state of the ESA Program, of which Accurso is the newly appointed executive director. Accurso hit the ground running when she began working for ADE several weeks ago. She walked in to find the ESA Program, left behind by former Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, severely understaffed and drowning in nearly 171,600 unfulfilled expense requests.
Although the Arizona legislature approved 52 positions to run the ESA Program, there were only 17 on the scene when Accurso arrived. That’s less than one-third of the staff that the ESA Program was intended to have. However, Accurso expressed confidence that merely doubling the team from 17 to 34 would be enough to run the program well for the meantime.
“We have less than half of the team we need to run this program,” said Accurso. “We will begin hiring soon and look forward to at least doubling our team to serve the families of Arizona well.”
ADE was severely understaffed despite receiving an additional $2.2 million last summer to hire 26 workers. Even with this funding, ADE undertook measures to minimize ESA Program operations. This included limiting call helpline hours to between 10 am to 2 pm.
Accurso said that her first hire was an individual who answers parents’ calls. The ESA Program failed to have a responsive helpline under Hoffman’s administration. Last year, parents who attempted to call the program helpline were met with an automated voice rejecting their call due to “excessive call volumes” and automatically hanging up with no promise of a call back.
These weren’t the only issues Accurso noticed. Ahead of her arrival, Accurso noted that odd expenses were given approval following Hoffman’s loss to current Superintendent Tom Horne.
That was far from the first time that odd expenses were given approval under Hoffman’s administration. Democratic state legislators argued that the program wasted taxpayer dollars through its allowable expenses. During a House committee hearing last year, Democrats questioned why items like bouncy castles and tonal home gyms, costing thousands, were approved. Republican committee members reminded their Democratic colleagues that Hoffman, a fellow Democrat, had approved these and other questionable items as allowable expenses.
In under three weeks, Accurso’s team approved nearly 24,700 of the unfulfilled requests after verifying the proper documentation was submitted, amounting to $22.2 million for things like private schooling, tutoring, and curriculum dating back to last November.
If the remaining 146,900 requests run a similar average in cost to the 24,700 approved requests (around $880 each), the ADE may owe over $129.2 million. The new administration paid 1,500 tutors who’d been awaiting paychecks for months under Hoffman, as well as reimbursement owed to a “small school” who’d been forced to consider a bank loan for their expenses due to Hoffman’s administration delaying their payment.
“We are reviewing all of the categories and our team, with ‘all hands on deck’ are getting through those as quickly as possible,” said Accurso. “These first orders were private school tuition payments and tutors of core subjects.”
Accurso noted that her team is not only working through old applications — they receive an average of about 130 new applications each day. Accurso stated that they have 949 pending applications.
“Yesterday we got around 200 applications. Right now my staff is working on a total of 990 applications from the weekend through yesterday. That’s why I’m hiring very quickly,” explained Accurso.
Accurso said that another one of her first actions was to replace the former administration’s allowable expenses list on the website with one that aligns with state statute. (The former list is archived here).
Prior to becoming ADE’s executive director, Accurso was an ESA parent burned by its poor administration. During Hoffman’s first year in office, Accurso and other parents were kept out of the program when the ADE failed to follow admission deadlines set by statute. Accurso gained national attention after her experience of spending hours each week on hold for over two months went viral.
Current Superintendent Tom Horne said in a statement earlier this month that the ADE’s previous administration of the ESA Program was unacceptable.
“When I took office, the commitment I made is that the Arizona Department of Education is a service organization committed to raising academic outcomes and empowering parents,” said Horne. “On my first day on the job, I demonstrated my resolve to fulfill that mission. Delays and inefficiencies of this kind are unacceptable and won’t be repeated.”
The decline of the ESA Program shouldn’t elicit much surprise. Since first campaigning for the position in 2018, former Superintendent Kathy Hoffman openly criticized the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program. During her re-election campaign, Hoffman claimed that the ESA Program had “zero accountability” while signing a petition to undo universal school choice.
The ADE said that nearly 46,000 students have joined the ESA Program as of Tuesday. Despite Governor Katie Hobbs’ intention on rolling back the program, the GOP-controlled legislature has no plans to do so.
Sen. President Warren Petersen told KTAR that there wasn’t a chance that school choice would be rolled back.