Another data breach in two years has Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) holders wondering if their information is secure with the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). This past week, it was discovered that the state’s contracted payment platform for ESA funds, ClassWallet, had allowed users to search for other ESA account holders and view their names and email addresses.
In a letter sent to ESA holders, ESA Program Director of Communications and Engagement Sarah Raybon explained that they became aware of the data breach last Friday. Raybon assured ESA holders that ClassWallet would resolve that feature over the weekend.
“Today, our team became aware of an issue in ClassWallet portal’s search feature that allowed account holders to view the names and email addresses of other account holders,” wrote Raybon. “Upon discovery, we immediately contacted the Treasurer’s Office (who holds the ClassWallet contract) and we spoke to ClassWallet directly. We have been advised that ClassWallet engineers will be working over the weekend to get this fixed.”
During the Arizona State Board of Education’s meeting last week, parents questioned why a violation of federal law was happening again. They pleaded with the members to remedy these issues sooner rather than later. One ESA parent, Kelly Pichitino, admonished ADE for not cleaning up their act and ensuring any contract holders follow federal law after last year’s data breach.
“I would like to know why, for a second time, my child’s name is available for a stranger to view along with my personal information?” asked Pichitino. “[I] would think that the department would invest a little more thought and care, time and accountability into their actions.”
Further public commentary at the meeting also focused on other issues with the ESA system, such as inappropriate or incompetent staff behavior, apparently arbitrary denial of funds for educational needs, little to no communication and transparency, and relentless rule or policy changes.
These issues were also detailed in written comments, which are available here.
This isn’t the first time that ADE has compromised ESA members’ information unintentionally. As Arizona Capitol Times discovered and reported last January, the ADE failed to properly redact the personally-identifying information of all ESA account holders when fulfilling a public records request to three requestors, one of which was a group that actively campaigns against ESAs: Save Our Schools Arizona (SOSAZ).
Exposed information included parents’ first and last names, email addresses, the grade of their student(s), and any disabilities if a particular student had special needs.
The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) downplayed the data breach, saying that only “some” personal information was shared inadvertently.
“In the course of fulfilling a public records request to three individuals, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) inadvertently disclosed some personally identifiable information belonging to Empowerment Scholarship Account holders,” stated ADE. “ADE redacted the document subject to the public records request but failed to secure the integrity of the redaction prior to sending the data, and the document was able to be manipulated to reveal private information.”
25 Arizona House and Senate Republicans led by freshman State Representative Jake Hoffman (R-Phoenix) called for Governor Doug Ducey to do something about the school districts defying state law with their mask mandates. The news release on Wednesday revealed that Republican legislators have urged Ducey privately to take action, to no avail. This public statement appears to be their next step in convincing Ducey to enforce the law.
It’s been over a week since the first school district called a mask mandate: Phoenix Union High School (PXU). Other schools followed suit soon after: most recently, Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD). Ducey hasn’t taken action – though his spokespersons have relayed Ducey’s finger-wagging statements of disapproval in response to those school districts.
The legislators proposed that Ducey respond to the districts’ actions by withholding federal funding, authorizing temporary Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) for families, inform families of the law, and take legal action.
Hoffman’s statement explained that the ban on mask mandates included a retroactivity clause that puts it in effect – contradicting school districts’ insistence that the law can’t take place until 90 days after the end of the legislative session, per Arizona statute. He noted that the school districts’ behavior undermined lawful government and bordered on anarchy.
“Under Arizona’s constitutional form of government, local governments do not have the authority or power to usurp state law simply because they disagree, yet that is precisely the kind of illegal activity in which many local governments are presently engaged. The Arizona legislature, with the Governor concurring, very intentionally enacted the laws at hand to protect Arizonans and Arizona children from the threat of government mandating them to wear a mask or be injected with a vaccine,” wrote Hoffman. “A resounding message must be delivered to any local government or subdivision of the state considering defying state law – lawlessness will not be tolerated.”
House Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham (R-Gilbert) signed onto the statement admonishing Ducey. He told AZ Free News that he also supports law enforcement stepping in to enforce the law. Grantham hinted that this debacle sparked a legislative priority for next year – adding more teeth to legislation.
“It’s unfortunate that some of our government-funded schools have chosen to blatantly ignore state law and the will of the majority of Arizonans by instituting mandates regarding students wearing face coverings,” relayed Grantham. “I support executive action by the governor to include withholding of taxpayer dollars and expansion of school choice funding options giving more educational choices to parents. I also support any efforts by law enforcement to enforce state law and I encourage parents and teachers to follow state law when sending their children to school and when on school grounds. Next year I will make it a focus to hold those who violate state law accountable and ensure appropriate funding reductions are in place for districts that purposely violate the law.”
State Representative Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale) also signed onto the statement. He reiterated to AZ Free News that disagreement with the law isn’t justification for violation of it. Chaplik wrote the legislation that effectively banned mask mandates in schools. He, too, asserted that the power to act is in Ducey’s hands.
“Just because some don’t agree with policy and law, we should not disrespect and violate it while also teaching children these illegal tactics,” said Chaplik. “We passed this policy due to the inconsistencies of results with mask use and the unknown long term health issues that can impair our children. We need to stop this madness. The legislature did its job and now the executive branch needs to enforce the law.”
As of press time, Grantham and Chaplik said that they haven’t seen or heard any responses from Ducey.
Republican Arizona State Reps. Michelle Udall, Joanne Osbourne, and Joel John are coming under fire for their decision to deny over 700,000 kids school choice opportunities. The trio voted with all House Democrats to reject a proposal to expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.
Specifically, Udall, Osbourne, and John voted against an amendment offered by Rep. Shawnna Bolick that would have expanded the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to low-income students (about 80% of whom are minorities) and kids of Veterans.
ESAs allow families to utilize their education tax dollars and spend those funds on education choices that they deem best for their children. These dollars can be used to attend micro/pod schools, private schools, hiring tutors, purchasing online curriculum, and other options that may work best for each unique student.
Critics say that by voting no on the Bolick amendment, Udall, Osborne, and John became the only three Republicans to vote against this measure and sided with the teachers’ union and anti-school choice groups like Save Our Schools.
Additionally, a poll conducted by the #1 pollster in the country according to the NY Times showed that 75% of Arizonan’s support school choice and that 73% of Arizonans support this specific effort of helping low-income children. This means that the vast majority of Republican, Democrat, and Independent voters all support school choice.
Supporters of ESAs say students in Arizona needed this expansion especially in light of the drastic learning loss from Covid due to the sub-standard “virtual” education provided due to the refusal of teachers to return to in-class learning.
The State Senate worked into the early hours Wednesday to pass an 11-bill budget packet, and now all eyes turn to the 60 members of the House which is slated to take up the bills Thursday.
But questions remain as to whether House Speaker Rusty Bowers can ensure 31 votes on the budget bill involving K-12 Education funding.
The Senate pushed its bills through a marathon of 16 to 14 party line votes which started Tuesday and did not end until 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. Many of those bills included amendments, including SB1826, the Senate’s K-12 budget bill, which as passed includes a major expansion of eligibility for Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).
An ESA allows an eligible child to receive credit for most of the government education funding that would have been paid to the student’s public or charter school. Those funds can then be used toward private school expenses, including tuition, counseling, tuition, and other necessary costs.
The Senate’s K-12 bill jumps the number of students eligible for an ESA from 256,000 to nearly 726,000. However, the House K-12 budget bill, HB2898, does not currently expand ESA eligibility. And two Republicans whose votes are needed to pass any budget bill have been staunchly opposed an ESA expansion.
Those Republicans are Rep. Joel John (R-LD4) and Rep. Michelle Udall (R-LD25). Both have worked as educators, and it was their opposition earlier in the session that killed an ESA expansion bill introduced by Sen. Paul Boyer.
How strong the opposition of John and Udall is to expanding ESA criteria will be tested Thursday due to the fact Senate President Karen Fann included one of Udall’s own education-related bills in the same Senate’s K-12 budget amendment. There are also items in the amendment that John is known to support.
Less than 10,000 of the students in K-12 who are currently eligible for an ESA utilize the program. Assuming the same percent of eligible students enroll under the new criteria as under the current criteria, then nearly 2,000 new students would benefit in Fiscal Year 2022. That number of new students could grow to nearly 6,000 in Fiscal year 2024, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
Boyer, an educator for a charter school, introduced his bill back in February and was able to get it through the Senate on a 16 to 14 party line vote. It then stalled in the House when it became clear Bowers did not have the necessary 31 votes for passage due to John and Udall’s opposition.
For the last few weeks Boyer had withheld support for the Senate’s 11-bill budget package, which he believed needed to provide more funding for education and paying down Arizona’s debt. With ESA and other expenditures added as amendments his vote turned to a yes. Whether Bowers can find a way to bring John and Udall on board for Thursday’s vote remains to be seen.
Those who support the ESA expansion include the Center for Arizona Policy, the Barry Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research, and the Republican Liberty Caucus- Arizona.
Rep. Shawnna Bolick says a tweet she wrote Wednesday was not intended as a commentary on the Senate’s ongoing audit of Maricopa County’s election process. Instead, she was simply trying to draw attention to a double-standard by many state Democrats on the issue of public-private partnerships.
Bolick (R-LD20) is a strong supporter of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) which thousands of Arizona families can utilize to provide school choice for students. As Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, she has championed SB1452 which seeks to expand ESA eligibility to thousands more students.
But Bolick says she has seen many Democrats who do not support giving families more choice in a child’s education if that choice involves a privately run school. Then on Wednesday morning, Bolick was reading comments about the Senate’s election audit when an article caught her attention.
That article reported on how Maricopa County does not have the administrative passwords necessary to access key voting equipment the auditors want to review. Those passwords appear to be in the control of Dominion Voting Systems, a private company which leases voting equipment to the county.
And that, Bolick says, prompted a bit of a snarky retort “comparing how the Left is okay with our democratic process being turned over to a private entity for elections, but they are not okay with kids going to, say, a private school.”
“I see so much hypocrisy in the world, so it’s fun sometimes to point out an issue that might not even be related to another issue,” Bolick said, adding she did not mean to suggest private companies should never be involved in elections. “Just a little poke on hypocrisy between different governance structures and ideas. Nothing more, nothing less.”
An amended version of SB1452 which came through Bolick’s committee is slated to be considered by the House on Thursday. If it passes the legislation will have to return to the Senate for a final vote.
Bolick also serves as Vice-Chair of the House Criminal Justice Reform Committee.