Universal ESA Vouchers Wide Open for Fraud & Abuse

Universal ESA Vouchers Wide Open for Fraud & Abuse

As Superintendent Tom Horne brags about approving thousands of ESA voucher expenditures without required receipts, Arizona is funneling approximately $600 million a year (and growing) to a voucher program that lacks nearly all of the accountability and transparency required of public schools receiving taxpayer dollars. When expanding the program universally, lawmakers had every opportunity to add guardrails that would prevent fraud and abuse, but refused to do so.

Stripping Accountability & Transparency from a $600M Program

Under state law, the AZ Department of Education (ADE) is responsible for overseeing the lawful distribution of ESA voucher funds. Recently, Superintendent Tom Horne and his newly appointed ESA Director Christine Accurso bragged that they’d approved 111,000 expenditures and that the vast majority of these expenditures did not have proper receipts.

This underscores what we already know about universal ESA voucher expansion: opening up a taxpayer-funded program to everyone in the state with few legal guardrails and loopholes the size of the Grand Canyon is bad public policy that opens the floodgates for grifters and profiteers. 

Arizona taxpayers have zero insight as to how dollars are being used for ESA vouchers — but we do know how nearly every dollar in public schools is spent. Taxpayers can view the salaries of teachers and administrators, the curriculum being used in each district, and what standards are being taught. Through the Auditor General’s yearly reports, every taxpayer can access the percentage of dollars used by each district for food, transportation, classroom instruction, administration, and more. It’s an open book. By contrast with ESA vouchers, taxpayers know virtually nothing. 

With recently passed universal vouchers, Arizona will be sending over $600 million per year (and growing) to private schools and homeschools — likely exceeding $3 billion in taxpayer dollars over the next 5 years. Taxpayers have no real records of how those dollars are being spent, or what the return on investment is. Academic testing for public schools shows Arizona students are on par with the national average in reading and math (despite chronic underfunding); however, because Republicans stripped any shred of academic accountability from universal ESA voucher expansion, we know nothing about what (or whether) voucher students are learning. It is shocking that Arizona taxpayers are funding a half-billion dollar a year program with no guarantee that their money is actually improving student outcomes.

Chicken Coops & Cowboy Roping Lessons, Oh My

The Guardian recently reported that Arizona’s overly expansive universal ESA vouchers are being used for questionable purchases such as “chicken coops, ice-skating and cowboy roping lessons.” Under the current ESA guidelines, almost any materials can be purchased through the program if the parent can tie it to some type of “curriculum” and justify it as an “educational expense.” In the same article, Supt. Horne’s newly appointed ESA Director Christine Accurso says she’s approved 171,575 orders since taking over in January (or about 6,000 spending approvals per day). Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Newly elected Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, told lawmakers the program “lacks accountability and will likely bankrupt this state”.

Under the law, participating families agree to provide instruction in the same content areas as public schools. In addition to more traditional lesson plans, parents report that they meet – or attempt to meet – those requirements through activities like ice-skating and sword-casting classes, according to posts in a Facebook group for ESA users and vendors marketing their services.

One parent in the group said she uses the Disney+ streaming service to “extend our learning” and asked if the state would approve the cost of a subscription. Others said they had received approvals for trampolines and horseback riding lessons.

The former state superintendent Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat who lost in November’s election to Republican Tom Horne, said she opposed the expansion because the rules are “incredibly permissive.”

“As long as an item can be tied to a curriculum – with curriculum being ill-defined and open to interpretation – that meets the definition of an allowable expense,” she said. “Striking the right balance between allowing parental choice and being good stewards of public tax dollars was a continual challenge faced by my administration.”

According to the education department’s parent handbook, some materials, such as board games, puzzles and Legos, don’t require parents to submit a curriculum. But less obvious items like dolls and stickers do. To justify buying a chicken coop for a science lesson, one parent posted a chicken-raising guide. Another suggested a workout from Fit Bottomed Girls to support the purchase of a trampoline for physical education.

Teachers for core subjects need to have at least a bachelor’s degree, but for specific classes like art, drama or dance, a two-year degree or a credential is acceptable. Vendors in the Facebook group often list what students would learn from their programs. The sword-casting instructor, for example, said he would teach students “archaeology, physics, history and metallurgy”.

There is no guarantee that parents spend these tax dollars on core curriculum — many parents are using the ESA program to supplement their child’s education with extravagant purchases like laptops, pricey espresso machines, and bouncy-houses. The nation is watching as Arizona’s universal ESA voucher fiasco threatens to bankrupt the state and disrupt student performance. Read our recent OpEd here

Fly-By-Night, Voucher-Funded Microschools

Parents who send their child to an ESA voucher-funded school have no guarantees regarding their child’s education. The Arizona Department of Education does not vet schools funded by the ESA voucher program; all schools are automatically approved. There is nothing stopping a bad actor from creating a “private school” or “microschool,” accepting ESA voucher funds, and then disappearing, leaving the students high-and-dry. To make matters worse, voucher schools can keep the quarterly funding they receive even if a voucher student withdraws from the school. The ESA voucher program lacks tracking, opening the floodgates for even more potential abuse. 

In addition, voucher funded private schools have no requirements for accreditation, registration, licensing, approval, teacher certification, or special education. Furthermore, schools are not required to assess or report academic achievement. If voucher schools increase student outcomes like proponents of ESA vouchers claim, why are they trying to keep student achievement secret? Wouldn’t private schools want to advertise their higher test scores?

AZ Voters & Governor Hobbs Want to Repeal Universal Vouchers

With virtually no accountability or transparency for these funds and the dramatic costs to local public schools, Arizona voters are rightfully questioning these expenditures and demanding the program be reversed to supplement the education of special needs students as originally intended.

The Arizona State Constitution requires the state to provide a public education to all students; it does not require the funding of private schools or home education. This Legislature must undo the harm last year’s legislature and former Governor Ducey caused, and roll back universal ESA vouchers before this unaccountable, wasteful program decimates the resources of our state and our schools.

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