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Arizona Board of Education rejects school voucher rule changes

Republican lawmakers contend Legislature didn’t restrict spending with Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Critics are concerned about the lack of accountability.

PHOENIX — A last-minute pressure campaign by Republican lawmakers and parent groups forced the Arizona Board of Education to drop a plan to put caps on certain spending under the school voucher program.

In a 9-1 vote on Monday, the board tossed out the Arizona Department of Education’s proposed Empowerment Scholarship Account handbook for the 24′-’25 school year.

School Superintendent Tom Horne made the motion to suspend the new handbook and use the existing handbook instead for the new school year.

Horne had come under fire for a handbook revision that barred “extravagant” purchases. 

“Parents have commented quite a bit on this,” John Ward, Horne’s ESA director, told the board. 

Among the purchases that have been rejected in the past year, Ward said:

  • A $15,000 luxury wristwatch
  • $5,000 massage chairs
  • $24,000 golf simulators
  • A $2,400 food freeze-drier

Under the proposed handbook, purchases “that do not involve a reasonable expense” wouldn’t be approved, Ward said.

“The Department of Ed wants to be a very good and prudent steward of this program.”

Spending on musical instruments would have been capped at $2,000.

The handbook language was brought to the attention of Republicans in the state Senate.

The chief of staff of the GOP-controlled chamber emailed Board of Education members at 6 p.m. Friday — ahead of the 9 a.m. Monday board meeting — with objections to the new handbook.

“The proposed changes restrict the program further than the Legislature intended,” Chief of Staff Josh Kredit wrote.

“The Legislature has not set any restrictions on items used for educational purposes.”

Republican State Sen. Jake Hoffman of Queen Creek, leader of the Senate’s far-right Freedom Caucus, praised Horne for setting aside the handbook produced by Horne’s staff.

“We make sure that we’re all rowing in the same direction for the children of this state,” Hoffman said, rejecting what he called “overreaching regulations.”

Horne attended the meeting remotely from California.

“We are all ears […] to hear from people that might have concerns about what’s in the handbook or what’s not in the handbook,” said Horne spokesman Doug Nick.

The ESA handbook contains the rules of the road for families in the program, including which education-related expenses ESAs will cover and how to be reimbursed. 

This would have been the handbook’s second update in a year and a half, coming after the Legislature’s expansion of school vouchers to all 1.1 million Arizona students.

The ESA program provides families with anywhere from $7,000 to more than $40,000 a year in tax dollars, depending on a child’s needs,  for private school tuition, home schooling or education-related expenses.

Enrollment has multiplied about six-fold since the 2022 expansion, to about 78,000 students, according to Department of Education data.

The rejection of any kind of spending limits will provide fuel to critics of the ESA program’s lack of accountability.

Anna Tovar, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, was the only board member who rejected the handbook extension.

“There have to be accountability measures and making sure that taxpayer money is being spent wisely,” Tovar said in an interview. 

Tovar said she was concerned about Republicans’ claim that  there should be no restrictions on parent spending.

“There might be […] bad actors out there in regards to using public funds in the wrong way,” she said. 

The handbook changes were opposed by Horne’s first ESA director, Christine Accurso, who spoke at a news conference before the vote that put the proposed handbook on hold.

Accurso stepped down last July after she was implicated in a data breach involving ESA families’ personal information.

Accurso wrote the ’23-’24 handbook that will now be used for a second year.


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