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Hobbs seeks more oversight, increased restrictions on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts

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(The Center Square) – Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs is looking to tackle Empowerment Scholarship Account-related issues in the next legislative session.

The governor and Democratic leadership outlined their goals in a press release on Tuesday, saying they hope to have more accountability for the school choice program.

The proposals include “manual approval” for $500 plus purchases, allowing the Arizona auditor general to keep an eye on the program, and placing back a 100-day in a public school “at any point in their education” requirement for a student before they can take part in the ESA program.

“The ESA program lacks accountability and transparency,” Hobbs said in a statement.

“My plan is simple: every school receiving taxpayer dollars must have basic standards to show they’re keeping our students safe and giving Arizona children the education they deserve,” she added.

House Democratic leadership also took a jab at the program, which became available to all Arizona families in 2022 after Gov. Doug Ducey signed it into law. The expansion was the first of its kind in the nation, and it led to both criticism and praise.

“The Republican expansion of government to universal ESA vouchers has put our state’s financial security at risk, and our students at risk without any safeguards,” Senate Democratic Leader Mitzi Epstein said in a statement.

Other proposals from the Democrats focus mostly on added oversight to private schools themselves, such as disability accommodation changes, a “fingerprint background check” for private educators, and added “transparency” measures.

However, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne told The Center Square in a statement that there’s already a process in place to monitor ESA spending, specifically criticizing the idea of closely monitoring high-dollar purchases.

“My job is to administer the ESA program in line with state law, and if changes are made the Department of Education will follow them,” Horne said. “However, one proposal stands out because it’s already in place: The governor recommends a manual review of ESA purchases over $500. My office already reviews all expense requests regardless of amount, unlike the previous superintendent who approved many frivolous requests.”

“In 2023, we rejected several thousand ESA applications for lack of adequate documentation and suspended almost 2,200 accounts totaling $21 million because the student was enrolled in a public school. We’ve also rejected more than 12,000 ESA purchase order requests,” he continued.

There are just under 73,000 students in the program as of Jan. 2, according to the Arizona Department of Education website. In a statement, state House Speaker Ben Toma told The Center Square that Democrats are wanting to “strangle” a popular program.

“Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are wildly popular with Arizona parents because they leverage private sector solutions to offer the best educational opportunities for their children,” Toma stated. “Meanwhile, Governor Hobbs and Democratic Party legislators now seek to strangle ESAs and private education with bureaucracy and regulation. I won’t allow that to happen.”

Sen. Ken Bennett, chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, took a similar tone, but he added that there is room for some changes to be made.

“Arizona’s school choice program has garnered national attention as a standard of excellence because it provides families with educational freedom. I do believe there are some common sense improvements that can be made to the program to ensure student safety, protect the rights of students with disabilities, and level the playing field between public, charter and private schools,” Bennett told The Center Square in a statement. “I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues this session to provide transparency and accountability, but we will not add layers of bureaucratic red tape, as some of the Governor’s proposals suggest, or discourage parents from participating in ESAs.”

The proposed changes were announced ahead of the legislative session, which begins on Monday. Like last year, both chambers have a narrow Republican majority, but the governor, a Democrat, will be the ultimate decision-maker on bills.

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