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.
So many parents were trying to apply for Arizona’s expanded Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) by Friday’s first quarter deadline that the department of education’s website was overwhelmed, leading to a decision to extend the application period.
“Because we are experiencing a high volume of parents trying to apply by today’s deadline for Q1 funding, @azedschools is extending the deadline to remain eligible for retroactive Q1 funding to 10/15/22,” the department announced midday Friday.
Gov. Doug Ducey helped spread word of the extension while commenting on the tremendous popularity of the new law which now makes all 1.1 million of Arizona’s K-12 students eligible to apply for an ESA which provides about $7,000 per student, per year to assist families in tailoring a student’s education experience to best meet their needs.
The funds can be used for a variety of purposes, including private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, educational therapies, tutoring, and other expenses in exchange for not attending a public school or receiving a tuition tax credit.
More than 12,000 applications have been received by the Arizona Department of Education since the governor signed ESA expansion legislation in June. That outpaces the number of students who were utilizing the ESA program under the old law.
The new expanded eligibility was to take effect Sept. 24 with a Sept. 30 deadline to qualify for first quarter funding. The rush by families to apply this week was bolstered by publicity involving a political action committee’s failed referendum effort to waylay the ESA expansion until voters could decide in 2024 whether it should go into effect or not.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs put the law on hold Sept. 23 based on claims by Save Our Schools Arizona that more than 141,000 referendum petition signatures had been submitted to Hobbs’ office. Of those, at least 118,823 signatures needed to be validated to keep the ESA expansion sidelined.
But in a letter dated Thursday, Hobbs’ staff officially confirmed what has been known for days – that the referendum effort failed to come anywhere close to the constitutional minimum number of signatures.
One parent said Friday’s announcement by Hobbs’ office ensures parents are now “rightly in control of their children’s future.”
Christine Accurso of Gilbert is among pro-ESA parents who questioned whether the glaringly insufficient referendum filing was simply a calculated ploy by anti-school choice politicians to freeze funding for children right in the midst of the school year.
“As a longtime ESA parent, I could not be more thrilled to see thousands of new parents benefiting from this program,” Accurso said. “It is my hope that the rest of the country can follow our lead and bring this legislation to their state, so that we can one day see all American children in the school of their parent’s choice.”
Save Our Schools Arizona issued a statement Friday putting the blame for the group’s referendum effort failure on the governor, who is one of ESA’s staunchest supporters.
“We are confident we would have succeeded had Governor Ducey not waited 10 days to sign the bill, robbing Arizona voters of crucial time to sign the petition,” according to the statement.
The group even criticized pro-ESA organizations like the Goldwater Institute for using “sophisticated software” to review the petitions, resulting in Monday’s revelation that Save Our Schools Arizona submitted only about 90,000 signatures.
For school choice advocates like Accurso, the important fact is that the ESA expansion is now in effect. The priority now is to ensure families that still want to apply become aware of the extended Oct. 15 deadline.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs chose to stall on the invalidation of a ballot initiative attempting to kill school choice, despite it not having the required number of signatures.
School choice advocates gathered outside of the State Capitol on Wednesday to protest Hobbs’ inaction. Hobbs told frustrated parents that her office would wait out the entire 20-day period offered by state law to verify the Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ) ballot initiative signatures.
Governor Doug Ducey spoke at the rally, telling Hobbs to expedite her signature verification. He also directed Arizona Department of Education (ADE) Superintendent Kathy Hoffman to take charge and free the universal school choice funds.
“Arizona is going to be a state that funds students, not systems,” said Ducey.
One Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program mother, Christine Accurso, pleaded with the media to question Hobbs’ choice. Accurso led “Decline to Sign,” the countermovement to SOSAZ’s ballot initiative.
“Help us parents of Arizona. Ask Katie Hobbs why they won’t release this,” said Accurso.
Accurso added that if a group of four moms was able to verify the signature number total in a matter of days, it shouldn’t take the secretary of state’s office nearly a month to do the same.
According to earlier reporting from this week, pro-ESA Program parents, organizations such as the American Federation for Children, and various reporters reviewed the SOSAZ signature sheets and found them far short of the claimed totals. However, Hobbs and her office took SOSAZ’s signature total claim at their word.
“Conservative Circus” radio host James Harris also spoke at the rally. He declared that Hobbs’ Republican gubernatorial opponent, Kari Lake, wouldn’t stand in the way of school choice funds for parents the way he said that Hobbs did this week.
“We don’t need more obstacles. We need liberty and we need freedom,” said Harris.
AZ Free News reached out to Hobbs’ office on Tuesday for clarification about whether their decision to accept SOSAZ’s word for their petition signature count without verification was protocol. They haven’t responded.
We also reached out to SOSAZ Director Beth Lewis; she didn’t respond to our questions, either.
Senate President Karen Fann (R-Prescott) sent a letter to Hobbs on Wednesday, informing the secretary of state that anything less than an immediate rejection of the SOSAZ ballot initiative would make Hobbs complicit in misreporting and interfering with the law.
“As our country enters into a recession, we know that every dollar is valuable to lives and livelihoods,” said Fann.
While awaiting response from Hobbs’ office, AZ Free News posed the same question to former Secretary of State Ken Bennett. Though he said he was shocked by Hobbs’ handling of the ballot initiative, he said that Hobbs’ actions weren’t in violation of any laws. Bennett explained that Hobbs’ handling of this recent initiative didn’t align with the precedent of her predecessors, including his administration.
“We just felt the integrity of the whole process was worth at least a verification of the number of sheets and the purported number of signatures on those sheets when they first turned them in when I was there,” said Bennett. “Each secretary can decide how they want to do it, but my administration felt that we at least owed the public the fact that we checked the signatures per sheet. At least we would add the total sheets and total signatures up, so we weren’t getting somebody a false receipt of what we had received from them.”
What’s the difference between 141,714 and 88,866? Take a few seconds to do the math, and feel free to use a calculator if you’d like.
If you answered 52,848, you’re correct! Congratulations and give yourself a pat on the back because your math skills are far superior to those of Save Our Schools (SOS) and the rest of Arizona’s teachers’ unions.
On Friday, SOS Executive Director Beth Lewis boldly proclaimed—with all the confidence in the world—that the wall of boxes she was standing in front of contained the signatures of 141,714 Arizona voters who supported a ballot initiative aimed at overturning universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) in Arizona. She was giddy. Her supporters cheered. SOS declared blocking universal school choice for all a “historic victory.” And corporate media jumped on the opportunity to push their narrative, accepting everything SOS said at face value.
But there was a problem. And that’s where simple math comes into play…