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Hobbs admin, Horne trade jabs on ESA report release timeline

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(The Center Square) – The Hobbs administration is taking aim at Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne for allegedly withholding the report on the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, but he has said that this is not the case.

Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting Director Sarah Brown said in a statement Thursday that the supposedly delayed quarterly report gives key insights into spending and who is enrolled in the program. Brown said that she’s been concerned about irrelevant spending such as “on ski passes and luxury car driving lessons.”

“Despite being only halfway through the school year, the program has exceeded FY 2024 budget estimates by 3,673 students and approximately $59.3 million.”

“Even with the escalating costs that threaten to crowd out critical spending from the State budget, your office has spent millions of dollars advertising the program. If the administrative burden of producing this report in a timely manner is too great for your office as constituted, I suggest re-prioritizing your budget to ensure you remain in compliance with Arizona statute,” Brown continued.

However, Horne said in a statement that the Department of Education has been in touch with the administration over the timeline.

“The Department of Education has been in contact with the Governor’s office for nearly three weeks regarding this issue. They are fully aware that we are preparing the report she has requested. Nothing is being withheld,” Horne said. “The report is in addition to the ESA quarterly report submitted to the State Board of Education and contains much of the same information. It is also a new report that was authorized in legislation earlier this year.”

In addition, Horne stated that the concerns about where money was specifically going had to do with early issues with the program under his Democratic predecessor, Kathy Hoffman.

“The frivolous ESA spending approvals occurred under the administration of the Governor’s friend, Kathy Hoffman. By contrast in the first quarter of Fiscal 2024 alone, this department reviewed more than 15,000 ESA applications, rejecting thousands that were incomplete,” Horne said. “We also suspended 2,200 accounts because the child was enrolled in public school, saving $21 million. Also, the latest figures show that current overall public education spending has a surplus of no less than $57 million, proving the ESA program has not impacted the state budget.”

The universal ESA program, which was the first of it’s kind nationwide, was signed into law under former Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in 2022. The program has surpassed enrollment expectations due to its popularity, as the DOE website says there are 72,053 students enrolled as of Dec. 18.

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