GOP lawmaker demanding AG investigation into Dem handling of vouchers

By: - July 22, 2019 9:40 am

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

A Republican lawmaker is calling on the Attorney General’s Office to investigate allegedly excessive wait times for dozens of parents who apply for school vouchers for their children, a move that the Arizona Department of Education and its new Democratic superintendent said is pretense to strip the agency of authority over the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. 

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said in a press release on Friday that Hoffman’s department has repeatedly violated a state law requiring the Department of Education to approve ESA applications within 45 days after it receives an application. 

“It appears that Superintendent Hoffman is letting her personal disapproval of the ESA program affect her legal obligation to follow the law,” Finchem said. “It is unconscionable that an elected official charged with administering education programs would slow-walk a program, which primarily serves children with special needs, because it doesn’t fit her left-wing agenda to end parental authority over school choice.”

The call for an investigation comes on the heels of a pair of videos produced by the American Federation for Children, a nationwide school choice advocacy organization, bashing Hoffman’s administration of the ESA program.

In a video it released on Thursday, the American Federation of Children highlighted the story of Christine Accurso, a Gilbert woman who said she has been unable to get answers from the Department of Education about an ESA for her 15-year-old son, Dominic. 

Accurso said she has repeatedly called the department’s ESA division and has been put on hold every time, sometimes for hours, leaving her without answers she needs regarding how she can use the voucher money for her son, who has been using ESAs for several years. She said she still hasn’t gotten the answers she needs, but did eventually receive the contract for her son’s ESA on July 1, nearly two weeks after receiving the wrong contract from the department.

Accurso said she never experienced such wait times under Hoffman’s predecessor, Diane Douglas, a Republican who served as superintendent of public instruction from 2015-18.

“Definitely there’s been a change this year, and the only thing I can attribute it to is there’s been a change in administration,” Accurso told the Arizona Mirror

AFC’s Arizona state director, Steve Smith, said the organization has heard from more than 70 parents who say they’ve been subjected to excessive wait times by the department.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program provides some students who withdraw from public schools with vouchers that they can use for private schools or other educational programs and materials. Students can qualify for vouchers if they are disabled, attend schools designated by the state as failing, live on a Native American reservation, have a parent who is an active-duty member of the military or was killed in the line of duty, or are a foster child.

Lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey in 2017 approved legislation that would have made all K-12 students in Arizona eligible for ESAs. Voucher opponents referred the law to the ballot last year, and voters overwhelmingly rejected the program’s expansion.

AFC also took aim at Hoffman in another video, which it posted to YouTube on June 29, for rejecting an ESA application from a military family at Ft. Huachuca. The department denied the application because the 5-year-old boy’s stepmother is an active duty military member, but his biological father isn’t, arguing that state law doesn’t permit stepparents to qualify stepchildren for ESAs. 

Richie Taylor, a spokesman for Hoffman, said the department has since reversed that decision. He said the department’s former in-house counsel from the Douglas administration did not believe stepparents qualified for the program, but the assistant attorney general who advises the department believes otherwise.

Josh Pennington, whose son, Jace, was denied for an ESA, told the Mirror that the Department of Education called him two days after AFC posted its video and told him that his application was being reviewed again. A couple hours later, he said, the department sent him the paperwork for the approved ESA. He’s no longer an active duty member of the armed forces, but his wife, Saquawia, who is Jace’s stepmother, is in the Army and is stationed at Ft. Huachuca. 

Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat, who has worked under both Douglas and Hoffman, acknowledged that some parents are subjected to long wait times. But he said the same problem occurred under Douglas, and denied that it’s gotten any worse under Hoffman. 

Swiat said the long wait times were a result of the legislature underfunding the ESA program. Under state law, 5 percent of the total funding for the ESA program is available for administration – 4 percent to the Department of Education and 1 percent to the state Treasurer’s Office. 

But the legislature must authorize the use of the full amount, and has for years refused to do so. Instead of the $3.6 million the department is supposed to receive, it is only allowed to use $1.3 million. Swiat said the department has 10 full-time employees who administer the ESA program, but could use 18 more.

“This program has been built to fail from the get-go,” he said.

Hoffman issued a statement on Friday calling on the legislature to fully fund the program, saying its failure to do so has created a burden on ESA families.

“Parents should rightfully be upset by long hold times, and they should call their legislators and demand to know why there is over $3 million in dedicated ESA administrative funding sitting in an account, unavailable for use by the Arizona Department of Education to manage the ESA program,” she said. 

Hoffman isn’t alone in complaining about underfunding for ESA administration. Shortly before leaving office, Douglas accused Republican lawmakers of routinely shortchanging the program, the Arizona Capitol Times reported in December. 

Swiat accused Finchem and AFC of an ulterior motive: justifying a push to strip the Department of Education of its authority of the ESA program and shifting it to either the Treasurer’s Office or to a private, third-party entity. 

Hoffman has been a critic of the program and supported the 2018 ballot measure to reverse its massive expansion, while Treasurer Kimberly Yee, a Republican, is a staunch advocate of school choice.

Finchem and Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, both sponsored unsuccessful bills during the 2019 legislative session that would shift oversight of the program to the Treasurer’s Office.

Smith denied that AFC’s broadside against Hoffman – earlier in the year, it criticized her in a dispute over Navajo students who were using vouchers to attend schools in New Mexico – was meant to set the stage to transfer authority of the ESA program from the Department of Education. He said his organization hadn’t coordinated with lawmakers in its efforts. 

In AFC’s video on Thursday, Accurso said, “Ultimately, it would be great if somebody else ran the program if she can’t do it, or if she doesn’t want to.” But she told the Mirror that her participation in the video was in no way intended to justify the removal of the ESA program from Hoffman. Her intent was only to “amplify my voice and advocate for my son.”

Smith, a former legislator, dismissed Swiat’s claims that the longer wait times were the result of underfunding. He said wait times were shorter when Douglas was superintendent, even though she had the same amount of funding for ESA administration. 

Hoffman has directed the department’s ESA division to focus more on investigating the use of voucher money in order to detect fraud, according to Swiat. He said that, in addition to increased participation in the ESA program, could explain the long wait times, though he denied that wait times are longer under Hoffman than under Douglas. 

When asked whether fraud detection has taken up time that ESA staff would otherwise use to process applications and respond to parents, Swiat said, “I think it’s a delicate balance. You have to serve the state in two ways. You have to do both. The staff is in a precarious position.”

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”