Records show history of long ESA delays at Dept of Education

By: - July 30, 2019 4:44 pm

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Records obtained by Arizona Mirror show that missed deadlines in approving applications for the state’s school voucher program were a common occurrence under former state schools Superintendent Diane Douglas, though the Republican didn’t face the sort of outcry that her Democratic successor is hearing from GOP lawmakers and school choice advocates.

State law requires the Department of Education to process applications for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program within 45 days. The American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, has recently criticized Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat who took office in January, for missing that deadline in what it says are dozens of cases. 

The organization has released several videos lambasting Hoffman for her administration of the ESA program, including for missing the 45-day deadline for numerous applications. Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, has called for the attorney general to investigate

American Federation for Children is correct in stating that Hoffman’s administration has missed that deadline in many instances. According to the Department of Education, it sent approval letters past the 45-day mark to 559 ESA applicants for the 2019-20 school year. 

That figure doesn’t include new ESA contracts that have already been processed because the department hasn’t tracked that information. The department has finalized an additional 844 new contracts for the 2019-20 school year, an unknown number of which may have missed the deadline.

But data provided by the Department of Education show hundreds of delayed approvals during the last two years of the Douglas administration, as well. 

In 2017, the department passed the 45-day mark with at least 130 of the applications it approved. The following year, that number swelled to at least 513 approved after 45 days. 

Those numbers are likely much higher. The department tracks the number of days it took to send its first notice to parents who applied for vouchers for their children. In many cases, the first notice was a request for more information to determine whether the students were eligible for ESAs. The department sent requests for more information later than 45 days to 232 families in 2017 and to 1,848 in 2018. 

In 2018, the department also issued 459 denials after the 45-day mark, up from 303 the year before. 

Hoffman’s administration said the department did not track delays prior to 2017.

Some of those applications were ultimately approved, some were denied and some lapsed because the parents didn’t provide the information requested by the department. The department did not have information on the final disposition of those applications.

The length of the delays vary. Last year, 165 of the 531 were approved within five days of the deadline. At least 113 had to wait more than 15 days after the deadline. Eleven people had to wait more than 80 days. 

The longest delay for approval listed in the department’s data was 97 days. 

Though the problem existed under Douglas, Republicans and school choice proponents have targeted Hoffman for it in a way they never did to her predecessor. No lawmakers called for investigations over delays in the approval of ESA applications. And American Federal for Children released an eight-minute video on July 18 castigating Hoffman for the delays. 

It was the third video the group had released over the course of months criticizing Hoffman over ESA issues. 

One video focused on Navajo students whom the department denied permission to use their vouchers to attend a private school across the state line in New Mexico, which is prohibited by law, and asked to repay thousands of dollars used at the school in previous years. The department later abandoned its attempt to recoup the money. 

The other video focused on the department’s denial of an ESA for a military family after deciding that an active-duty step-parent did not count as a parent. The department later reversed that decision. 

Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat said the only difference between the two administrations is that Douglas is a Republican and Hoffman is a Democrat.

“We certainly didn’t hear from them in the last couple years,” said Swiat, who served under both superintendents. “AFC wasn’t producing videos to attack the Douglas administration.”

Swiat has also alleged that AFC’s criticism and Finchem’s call for an investigation are intended to justify transferring control of the ESA program from the Department of Education to the state Treasurer’s Office, which already administers some financial responsibilities. 

Finchem and Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, both sponsored legislation last session that would have stripped the department of all or part of the ESA program.

Steve Smith, the American Federation for Children’s state director for Arizona, said the group’s criticism of Hoffman has nothing to do with her being a Democrat. He said AFC didn’t produce videos or otherwise call out Douglas for delays in the program because it was unaware of them. 

And even if there were delays under Douglas, Smith argued that there is more outcry from ESA parents, evidenced by the emails AFC has received from dozens of parents complaining about a lack of action by the department. He said he doesn’t know whether AFC received similar emails in prior years because he wasn’t with the organization at the time.

“It’s a problem to AFC when it’s a problem to the parents,” Smith said. “AFC does not involve itself until they’re notified.”

Smith said parents may be turning to his organization to help more than in years past because the Department of Education is less responsive to them than it was during the Douglas administration. He noted that parents such as Christine Accurso, whom AFC featured in its videos about the delays, have been unable to reach ESA staffers by phone, sometimes being left on hold for hours, and haven’t received responses to emails. 

“Couldn’t that be the reason, when parents can’t call the number on the website because nobody answers the damn phone?” Smith said. 

Smith accused Hoffman, who campaigned against a massive expansion of the voucher program last year, of being hostile to ESAs, and said that may be the cause of what he claimed are increased problems in the program. He noted that Hoffman’s ESA task force includes Save Our Schools Arizona, which led the campaign against the program’s expansion in last year’s election.

Swiat said the problem is that the legislature doesn’t properly fund ESA oversight. State law allows for up to 5 percent of the program’s total funding to be used for administration – 4 percent to the department and 1 percent to the state treasurer’s office – but the legislature must appropriate that money. 

It has never funded the full amount. 

If the department received the full 4 percent, it would have about $3 million to administer the program. Instead, it has about $1.3 million. Douglas publicly complained about legislative underfunding before she left office. 

Most of the ESAs awarded by the Department of Education each year go to previous recipients, who by law are qualified to continue receiving them. The remainder go to new students, who can qualify for meeting a number of criteria. Students with disabilities, children of active duty members of the armed forces, Native Americans who live on reservations or those who attend failing public schools are among those who qualify for the vouchers.

Arizona families submitted 3,449 applications for new ESAs for the 2016-17 school year, 4,843 for 2017-18 and 4,340 for the last school, according to the Department of Education. So far, the department has received 2,987 applications for new vouchers for the 2019-20 school year.

Total enrollment in the ESA program jumped to a record 6,450 students last year. That was up from 5,042 the prior year and 3,360 the year before that. 

“There’s just going to be more students added to the program, and there’s going to be a higher workload for the staff. So, I would not doubt for a second that there are going to be more approved after the deadline than the year before,” Swiat said. “There is no one hiding that fact around the department. This is why we keep lobbying for the $3 million.”

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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.”