By Corinne Murdock |
Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes announced over the weekend her intent to investigate parents participating in the state’s school choice program.
The attorney general issued the announcement exclusively in an interview on “The Sunday Special” by 12 News. Mayes claimed that audits done in the past by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) proved the prevalence of fraud, waste, and abuse in the ESA Program. The current administration has been in office less than a year.
“Clearly, there’s evidence of [fraud, waste, and abuse] already in audits that have been done in the past by the Department of Education,” said Mayes.
The last audit from the auditor general was issued in 2020. It found that former Superintendent Kathy Hoffman’s administration was slow to answer customer service phone calls and emails, provided poor quality information to ESA families, exceeded the 45-day statutory deadline for 55 percent of applicants, and releasing families’ personal information when fulfilling public records requests.
The last quarterly report was issued by ADE in September 2022 for fiscal year 2023.
Mayes accused the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) of not holding Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program parents accountable, and of wasting millions in taxpayer funding.
“There are no controls on this program. There’s no accountability, and they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money,” said Mayes. “That needs to be looked at. I’m the state’s top law enforcement officer, and I think it’s my responsibility to do that.”
Mayes’ announcement followed Gov. Katie Hobbs’ approval of the budget, which Mayes and other legislative Democrats opposed.
Mayes pointed out that funding for the ESA Program sits at over $300 million. As of Monday, there were just over 56,900 students enrolled in the ESA Program. Since the ESA Program gives families up to $7,000 in school choice funding for alternative schooling options, such as private and home schools, the current cost to the state sits at just under $400 million.
In public schools, the cost per student is about double the cost per ESA student — about $15 billion annually.
The attorney general also claimed earlier this month that the universalized ESA Program would be a “catastrophic drain” on state resources.
“This is taxpayer money that is now going to private schools like Brophy, Xavier, and Phoenix Country Day School, and All Saints. This money is being used by wealthy parents for their kids to go to private schools. That’s not what it was designed to do,” said Mayes.
In response to Mayes’ plan, ADE Superintendent Tom Horne noted that his predecessor, Kathy Hoffman, had intentionally attempted to undermine the ESA Program through improper administration.
“Under my predecessor, who was unfriendly to universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), the laws were not strictly enforced, and therefore funds were used for non-educational purposes, including restaurants and clothing stores,” stated Horne. “Because I am the defender of the ESA program, I want the laws to be strictly adhered to. I want to ensure that not one penny is used for a non-educational expense. Arizona is the first in the nation, and a model for the rest of the country. I am determined that all laws be strictly enforced, and all funds be used only for valid educational purposes. I’m disappointed that Attorney General Mayes has chosen, at every single opportunity, politics over the law.”
In March, Horne asked the State Board of Education to make four major changes to ESA Program administration to ensure better compliance with state law. The requested changes concerned modification of allowable education-related expenditures, accreditation for tutors and teaching services, access to ESA funds and debit card use, and a vendor change from ClassWallet.
As AZ Free News reported in January, the Horne administration inherited a severely understaffed ESA Program with nearly 171,600 unfulfilled expenditure requests. Of the approved expenditure requests, the administration discovered the approval list of expenditures had grown to include things like espresso machines. Hoffman inherited nearly 37,000 unfulfilled expenditure requests.
Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to email@example.com.