Arizona School Voucher Account Holders Accidentally Revealed; Balances Raise Questions
Records obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times and its sister publication the Yellow Sheet Report showed significant balances in Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program for dozens of parents whose children benefit from the state school voucher program.
Of the nearly 7,000 accounts, nine have a balance of more than $100,000 and 78 were found with more than $60,000. The records were released by the Arizona Department of Public Education, and spokesman Richie Taylor said the amounts reflect the different types of disabilities students have. But the high dollar figures raised questions for some school voucher skeptics.
“If the entire premise of the ESA program is that families need these state dollars in order to go into private schools or the private sector to pay for the education that their kids need, then I'm not sure why funds would be piling up an individual accounts to the tune of $130,000 piled up; $105,000 piled up," said Dawn Penich-Thacker with Save Our Schools Arizona. "The funds are paid out quarterly every single year because, theoretically, you're supposed to be paying tuition or paying therapist or paying for services.”
Save Our Schools Arizona is a public school advocacy group that opposes the expansion of school vouchers. Penich-Thacker said the concern is not only that taxpayer dollars are being misused, but that kids who need additional support and education aren't getting those supports.
“The largest portion of the ESA program is children with disabilities and children with special needs. And their education and their therapies can indeed be very expensive," she said. "So if these funds are able to pile up and they're not being paid for these really expensive services and therapies then it kind of makes us question what exactly is going on with that child. Are they getting what they need and if they are then shouldn't the state maybe cut back on how much their funding that family?”
And questions around these ESA records didn’t end there. The records released to reporter Dillon Rosenblatt were also improperly redacted — and revealed the names of the nearly 7,000 parents whose children use the program.
Dillon joined The Show to explain what happened.
According to a statement provided to KJZZ from the Arizona Department of Education, the disclosure of personally identifiable information of the account holders was inadvertent:
In the course of fulfilling a public records request to three individuals, the Arizona Department of Education inadvertently disclosed some personally identifiable information belonging to Empowerment Scholarship Account holders. 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.
In addition to notifying ESA holders of the data breach, and working with the recipients to recover the data, ADE will also be working with the US Department of Education to mitigate any potential damage and develop policies to ensure this type of error does not occur in the future.
ADE sincerely apologies for errors that led this situation. ADE takes student privacy very seriously and will continue to make every effort to ensure data security and student privacy.