Wasteful Misspending of ESA Voucher Funds Shocks Arizona

Wasteful Misspending of ESA Voucher Funds Shocks Arizona

A shocking investigative report from ABC15 shows how Arizona taxpayer dollars are being misspent in the ESA voucher program — from ski trips to luxury car driving lessons, these purchases are all approved by the universal ESA voucher program.

ABC 15’s “Data Guru” Garrett Archer and investigative reporter Melissa Blasius recently issued a staggering expose on Arizona’s ESA voucher program showcasing the rampant misuse of taxpayer funds under the unaccountable program expanded universally last year by former Governor Ducey and the Republican-controlled legislature. 

The three-part series provided an in-depth analysis of ESA voucher expenditures for the 2022-23 school year, during which time the irresponsible voucher program diverted $587 million of Arizona taxpayer’s dollars. Keep reading for a full rundown of how your taxpayer dollars are mismanaged and misspent by the ESA voucher program.

“$10,000 for a Sewing Machine???”

ABC 15’s explosive report found that Supt. Tom Horne’s Arizona Department of Education is approving unfettered funding for luxury items, like ski trips, pianos, and whale-watching excursions. Plus, they’re allowing voucher users to spend taxpayer dollars on unlimited summer camps, sports lessons, bounce memberships, gymnastics, martial arts, music lessons, horseback riding, aquarium visits, and even waterpark tickets – all purchases that public school families must pay for out of their own pocket. Meanwhile, Arizona’s public schools are funded nearly last in the US, forcing teachers and parents to fundraise for basics like pencils and printer paper. 

ABC15 found receipts for many extravagant expenses, including:

  • $3,400 for one purchase at a golf store 
  • $10,000 for one purchase at a sewing machine company  
  • $19,000 for more than 100 passes to Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort
  • $100,000 for extravagant appliances that freeze dry food which cost $3,000 each
  • $350,000 for “Ninja Warrior” training centers, trampoline parks & climbing gyms 
  • $400,000 for trendy, indoor hydroponic tower gardens that cost $1,000 each
  • $1.2 million for martial arts instruction 

But these purchases only scratch the surface of the total mismanagement in Arizona’s school voucher program:

  • $304 million was spent on 682,000 taxpayer-funded payments to more than 14,000 unregulated, unvetted vendors.
  • $200 million went to private schools for tuition and fees — mostly for students who already attended before receiving a voucher. Nearly half of these funds went to religious schools, and the vast majority of these private schools pick and choose their students. 
  • Of $79 million in “non-school expenditures,” $35 million went to Amazon and $5 million to Apple, with zero transparency for taxpayers.

Don’t public schools use state funding to buy many of these things?

$4000 Pianos!? How Is This Allowed?

When questioned about these millions of dollars spent on “educational extras,” Superintendent Horne’s newly appointed ESA Director John Ward admitted that “the vast majority of purchases that are coming through are completely allowable.” 

Even a $4000 piano for a single family? Director John Ward explained, “These are absolutely allowable. Now, if it was a luxury piano, some type of grand piano, baby grand, we may not approve that as a luxury item.” So, “luxury” pianos aren’t approved, but what about “luxury” driving lessons in BMWs and Teslas? According to Ward, “while you may think this may not be a good use of that family’s ESA funding, at the end of the day, they get a fixed amount of money, and if that’s how they’re going to choose to use it, that’s their prerogative.”

That is because, under Arizona law, ESA voucher users need only submit a receipt of a “curriculum” to receive reimbursement for purchases from the state. This “curriculum” is only loosely defined by ARS 15-2401 Section 2 as “ a course of study for content areas or grade levels, including any supplemental materials required or recommended by the curriculum, approved by the department,” and does not need to correlate to state standards. It can be self-written, downloaded from the Internet, or even sourced from ChatGPT or another AI system.

ESA voucher universal expansion was designed to be unaccountable. In fact, supporters of the bill rejected any attempts to add financial transparency, academic accountability, or even simple child safety measures like background checks for ESA voucher vendors to the bill. Now, with Superintendent Horne in charge of the voucher program and the Ducey-appointed State Board of Education turning a blind eye, misspending is running rampant. 

Vouchers Create a Two-Tiered System

It’s critical to recognize the two-tiered system of haves and have-nots ESA vouchers are creating. Our public schools (which the legislature is constitutionally mandated to fund) are forced to scrounge for resources to the point that teachers and parents are crowdfunding for basics like printer paper and tissues. When field trips do occur, it’s due to tireless grant writing and arduous fundraising by already overworked educators. When extra “bells and whistles” are purchased for schools, they benefit large numbers of students for many years — and the money that makes those extra items possible often doesn’t come from state funding, but from local dollars and separate fundraisers.

An “education program” that is wholly unconcerned with lax expenditures and frivolous tax-dollar waste can only be called one thing: a grift. We call on our state lawmakers to respect Arizona taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars and rein in this mismanaged program that is actively hurting our local public schools. 

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