School vouchers awarded up 33% this year, but oversight funding unchanged

By: - August 21, 2019 1:04 pm

The Arizona Department of Education says a record 8,200 students are expected to receive $110 million in school vouchers this school year. 

That means enrollment will have grown roughly 27% over last school year, and the total dollar amount of vouchers awarded will be more than 33% greater.

The number of students who receive vouchers under the Empowerment Scholarship Account program has nearly quadrupled in the last five years.

But funding for the department to administer the program – including both processing applications and ensuring the vouchers are spent only on educational items and services – hasn’t been increased for three years. In that time, the number of students receiving vouchers has increased 63%.

In a report to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee earlier this month, the department noted that the Republican-led legislature’s refusal to increase administrative funding will have negative effects on the students receiving the vouchers and their parents.

“As the program continues to grow with no additional administrative funding for FY 2020, the Department will be unable to keep up with staffing needs and as a result services to parents will continue to be impacted,” Callie Kozlak, the department’s associate superintendent for policy development and government relations, wrote in the report.

The lack of funding to hire more people to oversee and administer the ESA program means the department “simply cannot keep up with the increased volume of applications, parent inquiries, expense reporting and other program responsibilities,” Kozlak added.

The Department of Education has long complained about underfunding of the ESA administration. State law allows for up to 5% of the program’s total funding to be used for administration – 4% to the department and 1% to the state treasurer’s office – but the legislature must appropriate that money.

It hasn’t done so since the 2012-13 school year, when a mere 302 students received ESA vouchers. Since then, GOP lawmakers have consistently provided less than half of the money that, by law, is set aside for ESA administration. For the current year, the legislature is providing only about 38% of what it is supposed to under the law.

The administration problems that Kozlak referred to have been evident for years, including long wait times for applications to be approved. In 2018, the Arizona Auditor General found that parents had misspent or fraudulently spent more than $700,000 in ESA money, in large part because the legislature failed to properly fund the Education Department.

After Democrat Kathy Hoffman took over the department this year following her 2018 election as superintendent of public instruction, Republican lawmakers and school-choice advocates have launched attacks regarding the department’s failure to properly administer the ESA program.

In response, Gov. Doug Ducey has said he is mulling changes to the ESA program, and left the door open for expanding who can qualify for the vouchers.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.