AZ Board of Education scraps new rules for school voucher program

Published: Monday, March 25, 2024 - 5:00pm
Updated: Wednesday, March 27, 2024 - 1:00pm
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The Arizona Board of Education opted not to adopt new rules for the state’s school voucher program meant to promote compliance with state law following blowback from parents and Republican lawmakers.

The board was scheduled to vote Monday to adopt a new manual setting the rules and policies for the state’s school voucher program, officially known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. 

But state Superintendent Tom Horne, a Republican who has a seat on the board, asked his fellow members to scrap the new manual his Department of Education has been working on for months and readopt an existing version of the document for another year.

Horne made the request as Sen. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) gathered outside of the Arizona Capitol with voucher parents, who said the Department of Education did not give them enough time to provide feedback on the manual.

“I was very disappointed when I got word of the draft handbook that was not provided to us parents,” said Kelly Kenney, the mother of a child enrolled in the ESA program. “There are many things in the handbook that are problematic to us parents.”

Hoffman echoed those comments but wouldn’t point out specific measures in the manual that he and the parents opposed. 

“So I think the big issue here is not one item versus another,” Hoffman said. “It’s specifically that we want parents engaged in the process.”

The draft manual would have made several significant changes to the voucher program to improve stewardship of the program and ensure compliance with state law, said John Ward, the Department of Education’s executive director for the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program.

Ward said one new rule that generated plenty of parent feedback would have prohibited the use of voucher dollars to purchase supplementary items “that do not involve a reasonable expense,” such as designer items. He pointed to recent attempts to purchase a $15,000 watch, $5,000 massage chairs and $24,000 golf simulators.

“When there are extravagant purchases being made, it puts the program in a very difficult position,” Ward said.  

Other new rules would have kept students who attend public school from using vouchers to pay for summer school programs only and prohibit private schools from setting up school voucher accounts for families. 

Ward said that, in some cases, private schools maintained voucher accounts on behalf of families and that those families did not even have access to log in credentials for those accounts.

“So we’ve had families call in and say they don’t have access to their own ESA account or, in worst case scenarios, they weren’t even aware that they were a part of an ESA program,” Ward said.

The department also proposed a change requiring families of students with disabilities who receive voucher dollars after 12th grade to submit an annual education plan. 

It’s unclear if those measures will make it into a future version of the programs rulebook after the Board of Education voted to approve Horne’s request to readopt the existing manual. Only Board Member Anna Tovar, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, voted against the motion.

Horne backed Hoffman’s request, even as he and his staff said the department did conduct parent outreach on the new manual to parents ahead of the board’s vote. Horne said the draft was posted to the department’s website on March 15 and changes were made based on comments they received. 

“In the last few days, it’s come to my attention that a fairly large number of ESA parents didn’t know that they needed to log into the Department of Education website and feel that they haven’t had an adequate chance for input,” Horne said. 

Doug Nick, a Department of Education spokesman, said the department has been soliciting feedback on parents’ issues with the existing manual since October and received over 120 comments. 

“We understand that if there are people that feel like there needs to be a little bit more breathing space for them to communicate, we want to accommodate that,” Nick said.

Horne said the Department of Education will create a working group to collect feedback to use as it crafts next year’s manual.

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