It’s been just over a month since new Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, was sworn into office, and his hire to run the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program has been delivering significant results for Arizona families.
Christine Accurso, the new ESA Executive Director, has been a longtime pro-life and school choice advocate in the East Valley. Her family has benefited from the ESA program for years – well before the Arizona Legislature expanded its scope in 2022. After the bill was signed into law by former-Governor Doug Ducey, Accurso singlehandedly led a grassroots army of moms and dads from around Arizona to defeat a campaign meant to refer ESA expansion to the ballot and delay the implementation of school choice and freedom for tens of thousands of children in our state.
Since coming on with the Arizona Department of Education, Accurso has been hard at work to save the expanded ESA program a second time, bringing staffing up to the levels intended by the legislature, handling the huge backlog of funding and reimbursement requests, vetting and approving new applications for the program, and ensuring that parents are receiving timely and relevant information from her office.
To that end, Accurso has been extremely diligent in sending out weekly emails to account holders, explaining what her program is working on, clarifying any previous misconceptions about ESAs, and giving updates on the number of students benefiting from school choice in Arizona. Her first email, sent January 3 (which was her inaugural day leading the program), alerted parents and guardians that there were 45,170 students receiving an ESA. In her email this week, that number was up to 46,971 – and Accurso briefed readers that the program is “receiving a minimum of 150 new applications a day.”
Accurso’s latest email also gave an update on her processing que, which is very helpful for account holders to realize the reasons behind some delays in payment processing or approval of desired resources for students. The Marketplace has a backlog of 4,578; Direct Pay of 4,032; Reimbursements of 24,409; and pre-paid debit cards of 63,125 – and there are 4,000 orders coming in each day to be processed. These numbers are significantly down from the original backlog Accurso inherited from the previous administration (and shared in her January 13 email), which was 171,575 orders.
The ESA Executive Director has also been planning and executing the formation of a parent advisory committee – an action she forecasted in her January 13 email to account holders. Accurso announced in her January 25 email that the application process for this committee was open – with 15 to 30 members selected to serve in a volunteer capacity. There were 140 applications received by the ESA Program for this committee, per Accurso’s February 8 email, and she informed interested readers that “we will be finalizing the candidates and communicating with them soon.”
The February 8 email to account holders was lengthy, which Accurso apologized for, but it was filled with necessary information. Accurso explained that she had “spent her first month as the executive director adjusting our office’s approach to everything in the ESA program to align with the state law.” She clarified the law and requirements for an “individual vs facility/business offering tutoring or teaching services,” and she gave an update on “accessing your ESA funds.” She gave a lot of information on the four ways account holders could access their ESA funds, including some new directives on using the pre-paid debit card. Accurso warned that her office “does plan to cancel the use of debit cards for all accounts that have not submitted the appropriate receipts by the (required) deadline or have purchased unallowable items with the card (For example: Chevron, Chick-Fil-A, Taco Bell and Dillard’s).”
Accurso realizes that one of the deadliest attacks toward ESA programs is the lack of oversight by those entrusted to distribute and steward the funds, and the propensity of some account holders to misuse funds that have been earmarked for specific educational purposes – whether intentionally or unintentionally. This is why she appears to be laser focused on bringing the Arizona ESA program into conformity with the law and the original intent of the legislature. Her weekly updates will continue to provide much-needed guiderails for parents and guardians as the program moves forward under the watchful eyes of Superintendent Horne.
Daniel Stefanski is a reporter for AZ Free News. You can send him news tips using this link.
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 toldKTAR that there wasn’t a chance that school choice would be rolled back.
The public school system in Arizona is a complete mess. But during the past few years, it really hit a new low.
Attempts to indoctrinate children with Critical Race Theory and radical gender theory have been spreading throughout our public school districts. COVID shutdowns have wreaked havoc on students’ education—especially low-income parents and children. In the meantime, public school spending surged during COVID while teacher pay didn’t keep pace. But that didn’t stop failed teachers’ unions like Red4ED from trying to use the “low teacher pay” narrative in their attempts to push more ridiculous tax increases on taxpayers like you.
Of course, all of this is only more infuriating when you consider that the majority of Arizona students continue to fail the statewide assessment. And ACT scores for Arizona students have fallen below the standards for our state universities. That’s why the Club made it a priority to drain the public school swamp in this past November’s election. And we saw some great success…
One mother who fought to defend universal school choice in Arizona will serve as its executive director.
On Thursday, Christine Accurso announced that Superintendent-elect Tom Horne asked her to serve as the executive director for the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program. Accurso, a beneficiary of the ESA Program, said that she would do everything in her power to protect school choice.
“Families deserve educational choice to help shape and mold the futures of their precious children,” stated Accurso.
Accurso led the Decline to Sign movement, which opposed Save Our Schools Arizona’s (SOSAZ) ballot initiative earlier this year to overturn universal school choice.
Not only has Accurso been an advocate for expanding school choice, she’s been a watchdog for the movement.
Accurso discovered that SOSAZ far overestimated their signature numbers when they turned in their signature sheets for the ballot initiative. She raised awareness of the signature shortage, urging the secretary of state’s office to expedite verification of the signature count rather than waiting the 20-day period allowed by state law. Several days after Accurso and other parents petitioned the secretary of state’s office, they confirmed that the petition lacked enough signatures.
Accurso also publicized recent issues with the ESA Program helpline as parents attempted to join the newly-expanded program. The phone line was busy nonstop, and would hang up on parents without the promise of a call back or an option to leave a message.
School choice was one of the issues that defined the midterm election. Where some Republicans lost in other contested races by thousands of votes or continue to await final ballot batches to determine the winner, Horne prevailed.
Horne managed a victory over Democratic incumbent Kathy Hoffman, earning 50 percent of the vote to Hoffman’s 49 percent — just over 9,300 votes.
Hoffman conceded on Thursday, shortly before Horne tapped Accurso to lead the ESA Program.
Horne ran against Critical Race Theory (CRT), ethnic studies, and bilingual rather than immersive education. Horne advocated for in-person learning, standardized testing for graduating seniors, state takeover of failing schools, and full in-state scholarships for those who exceed state testing.
Hoffman ran against school choice expansion and bans on CRT tenets in education. She advocated for reducing class sizes, increasing teacher pay, increasing mental health funds for students, and increasing internet access for students.
Parents attempting to call the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) helpline for the school choice program are met with an automated voice that rejects their call due to “excessive call volume” and promptly hangs up.
No indication of wait times, and no promise of a call back.
It’s just another day of Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program administration under ADE Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, who hasn’t exactly been shy about her disdain for school choice programs. Hoffman proclaims loudly and often that the ESA Program lacks accountability and remains dysfunctional, even well over three years into her administration.
AZ Free News asked ADE about the ESA Program helpline. They didn’t respond by press time.
Christine Accurso, one of the ESA parents on the frontlines advocating for universal school choice, criticized the ADE for taking in an additional $2.2 million to hire 26 new workers this summer, yet still can’t manage the universal school choice program.
Last month on her reelection campaign trail, Hoffman insisted that universal school choice doesn’t help children with unique learning needs. She declared that it was a “taxpayer-funded coupon for the wealthy.” She then advocated for voters to sign an initiative to refer universal school choice to the 2024 ballot.
Hoffman has fought consistently to eradicate the ESA Program.