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New version of ESA handbook delayed after parents express input concerns

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(The Center Square) – The Arizona State Board of Education decided to approve the current school year’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program handbook for the 2024-25 school year after pushback from parents and some Republicans on the draft version.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne motioned to have the current handbook be extended in hopes to eventually getting a working group with education stakeholders involved.

Last week, Sen. Jake Hoffman and some other Republican lawmakers wrote to the board asking them not to vote for the upcoming school year draft of the handbook when they became aware it was up for a vote with little input. According to the Arizona Department of Education, feedback was welcomed on this year’s handbook since October, but the actual draft was not released until this month.

“We believe the proposed changes restrict the program further than the Arizona State Legislature intended,” the letter states. “Furthermore, the failure to allow for public engagement, comment, or input in the shaping of these new regulations is incredibly concerning.”

Hoffman called the motion by Horne to be an “incredibly wise decision” at a news conference with parents and lawmakers.

During the meeting’s public comment section, parents raised concerns about payment processing, as well as other restrictions added in the guide, similar to the concerns outlined in the letter from Republicans.

“It takes a long time to work up this draft. It’s a very intense process,” ADOE communications director Doug Nick told reporters.

The ESA program went universal in 2022 after former Gov. Doug Ducey signed the first of-its-kind policy into state law the year prior.

Many Republican state leaders, including Horne and Hoffman, have been supportive on the universal model for the program. It essentially allows the money that would be used for a student’s public schooling to go to other education-related expenses, which has sparked intense criticism over how the money could be utilized.

Opponents of the universal model, as well as those who believe it should simply have more restrictions, have expressed concerns about the misuse and abuse of funds. Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes announced the grand jury indictments of five individuals for alleged ESA program fraud on Feb. 29, including three former ADOE employees.

“This is a program that is easy to target for fraud,” Mayes said at the time.

“The employees were not fired until our investigators began looking closely into the activity,” she later added during the announcement.

However, Horne argued that the ESA program is running much more strictly than it was when the alleged fraud case first began under his predecessor Kathy Hoffman.

“It is worth noting that these employees were hired under my Democrat predecessor whose oversight of the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program was lax,” he said in a statement following the indictments. “In fact, it was so loose that when I took office, I faced dozens of parents at State Board of Education meetings furious at me for placing more controls on expenses and spending requests.”

The program continues to grow in number, with 76,391 students enrolled as of March 18, according to the ADOE website.

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