TUCSON – A newly elected official will have to investigate thousands of tax dollars that were misused by parents.
Arizona offers Empowerment Scholarship Accounts for families to spend on education. They are commonly referred to as school vouchers. Last October the Arizona Auditor General released a report showing ESAs were frequently spent on unauthorized purchases.
Kathy Hoffman was just elected to be the next Superintendent of Public Instruction and take over the Department of Education. Starting in January, one of her will jobs be overseeing ESA abuse.
“My concern is then that means kids that really need it are not getting it,” Hoffman said. “And where is that money going?”
In fiscal year 2018 the Auditor General wrote about “more than 900 successful transactions at unapproved merchants totaling more than $700,000. These merchants included computer technical support providers and athletic apparel and beauty supply retailers.”
Hoffman hopes to improve the transparency of the program.
“What systems are they using to track this?” Hoffman asked. “Is it just an Excel spreadsheet? Which is what I’ve heard. Or do they have a more high-tech, technological way of tracking this?”
The program has strict rules, but the Auditor General wrote the department flagged “1,600 bank accounts as high or medium risk each quarter; however, it assigned only one staff person to review these accounts.”
Hoffman wants to make sure the department is properly staffed and trained.
“That’s one thing that we’re looking into, to see how much flexibility I have in spending within the department,” Hoffman said. “But I have heard from the governor’s office that he also has indicated support in making sure that it’s a well-run program.”
Last November voters rejected Proposition 305, which would have expanded the ESA program.
After the election the Goldwater Institute released a statement vowing to continue the fight to give families a greater say in their education.
“Across the country, ESAs have garnered the support of Republicans and Democrats alike,” Goldwater Institute President and CEO Victor Riches wrote, “because they provide a commonsense way for families to help pay tuition, provide tutoring, and purchase the tools they need to give their students the best chance at success in school and down the road.”
Hoffman said she does not want the legislature to eliminate ESAs.
“I actually think it’s sad that our public schools don’t have the resources they need for every child,” Hoffman said. “And so I think that right now we do need to maintain the program as-is to make sure that every child, no matter their background, has full access to a high quality education.”
She hopes the rejection of Prop 305 will convince lawmakers to invest more in public education and stop trying to expand ESAs.