Ducey, Senate GOP call for more money to speed up ESA voucher approvals




    Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman. Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

    In the midst of several recent controversies and a PR campaign a prominent school choice advocacy group launched last year against the Democratic superintendent of public instruction, Gov. Doug Ducey wants to give the Department of Education more money to speed up the processing of school voucher applications.

    But Republican senators have plans to do even more than the governor.

    Ducey’s budget plan, which calls for the most spending in state history, includes $960,000 to create a “student and parent support center” for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts that would include five customer service representatives to answer questions about the program and the application process. 

    That would allow five existing ESA program specialists to “focus solely on the timely processing of applications.”

    Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are calling for adding $1 million to hire 13 new employees to manage ESAs. The lawmakers also have other policy changes related to ESA administration, including eliminating a statutory 5% set-aside to pay for administrative costs for the program. Funding for oversight would instead be an ongoing part of the budget.

    Although the ESA program is designed so that administration and oversight is self-funding, the education department can’t spend that money without legislative approval – and lawmakers have never given full funding.

    They also haven’t increased the funding since 2018, even as the number of students receiving ESA vouchers has grown by 63%.

    Like Ducey’s proposal, the Senate GOP plan also would create a dedicated call center staffed by five employees who would exclusively take calls for the ESA program. The Senate budget also calls for a “case management approach” to handling applications so families applying to the ESA program have a main point of contact during the process. 

    And two accounting staff would be added to ensure that transactions that are a part of the program are approved in a timely manner. Those staffers would also conduct seminars and training for families across the state, “particularly in rural and remote communities.” 

    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.

    The Department of Education praised the ESA budget components of the proposed budgets from Ducey and Senate Republicans.

    “We’ve long maintained the department needs additional funding to better serve parents and families that rely on the ESA program for their child’s education,” agency spokesman Richie Taylor told Arizona Mirror

    He added that the agency is “even more pleased with” the Senate GOP recommendations, because they “allow the department to do even more to serve families effectively and efficiently.”

    Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
    Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.