Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman asks the legislature to release funds for ESA program and addresses Representative Mark Finchem’s call on the Attorney General to investigate the Arizona Department of Education’s Empowerment Scholarship Program:
“It has been and remains my administration’s intent to run the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program effectively to serve enrolled students and families. With the ESA program’s exponential growth in recent years, the legislature’s failure to adequately fund the program’s management has resulted in an increased burden for families. Parents should rightfully be upset by long hold times, and they should call their legislators and demand to know why there is over $3 million in dedicated ESA administrative funding sitting in an account, unavailable for use by the Arizona Department of Education to manage the ESA program.
The statute governing the ESA program allows for 4 percent of program funding to be allocated to cover program administration. Currently, our ESA Department receives less than half that amount – 1.62 percent. It is hypocritical for members of the legislature to attack the department on this issue when they have failed to fully fund the administration of this program year after year.
As of today, there are nearly 6,500 students on the ESA program, with more than 1,300 new applications waiting to be processed. We employ 10 full-time ESA specialists who are responsible for taking calls, processing applications and contracts, reviewing expense accounts, investigating misspent funds, and more. This equates to a caseload of roughly 650 ESA students to one specialist, which is unacceptable for workload realities.
Despite these challenges, my administration is actively working on solutions that will allow us to better serve those relying on this program. These solutions include moving to a new payment system which will be easier for parents to use, ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent appropriately, and reducing the need for parents to call the department with questions on expenditures. We plan to transition to this new system in the coming months. It is an incredibly busy time of year for our ESA department, and we have approved overtime for members of our ESA staff to work this weekend and we are also working to reallocate other department resources to help answer phones to reduce hold times. The bottom line is that the department is working diligently to administer this program, despite the lack of resources allocated by the legislature.
I have made it a priority since taking office to build working relationships with members of both parties in order to best serve students and families. Arizonans deserve government officials who will work together to solve problems and find solutions -- especially when it comes to our children. I am disappointed that any lawmaker would participate in efforts that only serve to damage the relationship between the department and the legislature. We have already spoken with Attorney General Brnovich’s office about our shared commitment to transparency and ways we can work collaboratively to support students and families. I appreciate his office’s willingness to work with my administration.
I urge lawmakers to provide the full amount of allowable administrative funding, so the department can effectively implement and manage this program. To do any less does a disservice to students and families.”