A former Arizona Department of Education official who helped oversee the Empowerment Scholarship Account program under Diane Douglas defended Kathy Hoffman’s handling of the program, saying the new superintendent of public instruction’s predecessor had the same problems with delays in approving applications for the school voucher program.
Charles Tack, who served as associate superintendent of policy development and government relations from mid-2017 through early 2019, said the problems facing Hoffman’s administration are similar to the issues he saw while working for former Superintendent Diane Douglas.
Hoffman, Arizona’s first Democratic state schools superintendent since 1994, has come under fire from Republicans and school choice advocates for her handling of the controversial voucher program.
The American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, has accused Hoffman of excessive delays in processing dozens of applications for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, has called for the Attorney General’s Office to investigate whether the Department of Education is violating a law requiring it to approve those applications within 45 days.
And Douglas, a Republican who served one term from 2015-18, said she doesn’t recall her administration failing to process applications within the 45-day deadline.
Tack, who described himself as such a strong supporter of the ESA program that he claimed an “almost spiritual connection” to it, disagreed.
As the person to whom the director of the ESA program reported for about a year and a half, he said he saw dozens of applications – and perhaps more than 100 – exceed that deadline.
And while he no longer works at the Department of Education and therefore isn’t privy to the inner workings of the Hoffman administration, Tack said media reports indicate the new superintendent is having the same issues with processing applications and responding to phone calls and emails in a timely fashion that Douglas experienced.
“I’m reading things that I kind of lived through,” said Tack, who now serves as executive director of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. “What’s being described does not seem terribly different from some of the challenges we faced.”
During the busy times of year, in the summer between school years, the department would receive upward of 20 applications per day, Tack said. Because of the limited resources of the ESA program, which currently has 10 full-time employees, the department pulls in employees from other divisions to assist with the applications, Tack said.
Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat, who served under both Douglas and Hoffman, said he recalls hundreds of delayed application approvals under Douglas.
While Douglas has said she doesn’t believe her administration had the same issues with delays in ESA applications, she conceded on Wednesday that Tack may be right.
“Do I doubt that we missed some? I don’t doubt it. If Charles said we did, I suppose we did. But the point is, our intent and my intent and my instruction to him was always that we provide the best customer service to the parents that was absolutely possible with the resources we have,” Douglas told the Mirror.
Douglas reiterated her previous statements that the legislature has consistently underfunded the ESA program, a complained echoed lately by Hoffman’s administration. She also described the 45-day requirement as an arbitrary and capricious requirement set by lawmakers who had no idea how much work the program would entail.
State law allows up to 5 percent of the program’s funding to be used for administration – 4 percent to the Department of Education and 1 percent to the state Treasurer’s Office, which oversees financial services contracts for the program – but the legislature must authorize its use.
In most years, Republican lawmakers who control the state’s pursestrings authorize less than half the full amount.
The legislature’s refusal to authorize more funding for the ESA program comes despite its consistent growth.
The ESA program allows some parents who pull their children from public schools to receive the funding that those schools would have otherwise received for the students’ education. Parents can use that money for things like private school tuition, tutors and educational materials.
Only certain groups of students are eligible for the vouchers. The program is open to disabled students, Native Americans living on reservations, students who attend failing schools, children of active-duty military members and foster children, among others.
In fiscal year 2015, when Douglas took office, there were 1,311 students enrolled in the ESA program, according to the Department of Education. That number grew to 2,175 in 2016, 3,360 in 2017 and 5,042 in 2018. The department estimated in December that enrollment would reach 6,500 in fiscal year 2019.
The legislature authorized about $1.3 million for administration the current fiscal year. If the department had received authorization to use the full 4 percent, the department said it would have about $3.6 million.
“I don’t know how we resolve this. We have a legislature that refuses to provide the minimum that they said was necessary,” Douglas said.
Like Douglas and Hoffman, Tack noted that the ESA program has long been plagued by a lack of financial resources.
“The program has always had resource issues. And that has not changed from administration to administration,” Tack said.
Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Brnovich, wouldn’t comment on whether the office will investigate the Department of Education at Finchem’s request. But he said the Attorney General’s Office has been working with the department and assisting it to help it fulfill its legal obligations regarding the ESA program.
“We’ve already had multiple discussions with the Department and are optimistic that a productive dialogue moving forward will help ensure the Department has the legal advice and resources it needs to implement and manage a successful ESA program,” Anderson told the Mirror.
Finchem’s call for an investigation came on the heels of a video produced by the American Federation for Children that criticized Hoffman for delays in ESA applications. It was the second video the group had produced in the past month that targeted the new superintendent over her handling of the voucher program.
During her campaign last year, Hoffman opposed a ballot measure that would have expanded the ESA program to include any student in Arizona.
Swiat alleged that the videos and Finchem’s request to the attorney general are meant to set the stage for a legislative push next year to take the ESA program from the Department of Education and give it to either the Treasurer’s Office – Republican Treasurer Kimberly Yee was a steadfast supporter of the program in the legislature – or to a private entity.
Finchem and Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, both sponsored bills in the 2019 legislative session that would have removed transferred administrative duties for the ESA program to the Treasurer’s Office. American Federation for Children’s state director, former GOP lawmaker Steve Smith, said that’s not the intent of his organization’s recent campaign against Hoffman’s handling of the ESA program.