If one wanted to release the names of all the families that had obtained Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (Vouchers) and not get caught, the first thing that person should do is send that information to two news organizations in the hopes they would not tell anyone else how they obtained it.
The above paragraph should tell the reader right away that Kathy Hoffman and her team had no malicious intent to release data of families enrolled in the school voucher program.
The accidental transmission of family information to the Arizona Capital Times, The Yellow Sheet, and an individual filing a records request is just that, an accident.
The Arizona Department of Education, whose leadership found out about the error just before the Arizona Capital Times published its story, immediately took steps to remedy the situation.
They released a statement, which read:
“In the course of fulfilling a public records request to three individuals, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) inadvertently disclosed some personally identifiable information belonging to Empowerment Scholarship Account holders. ADE redacted the document subject to the public records request but failed to secure the integrity of the redaction prior to sending the data, and the document was able to be manipulated to reveal private information.”
“ADE has notified the affected ESA account holders of the data breach and has contacted the recipients to recover and secure the data. ADE has also contacted the U.S. Department of Education’s Student Privacy Protection Office (SPPO) to determine if the breach violates Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) laws and will continue to work to mitigate any potential damage to ESA account holders and families. ADE will also work with the U.S. Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) to develop policies to ensure this type of error does not occur in the future.”
“ADE sincerely apologizes for errors that led to this situation. ADE takes these matters very seriously and will continue to make every effort to ensure data security and privacy.”
Unfortunately, Republican reactionaries like Sylvia Allen and Mark Finchem have latched onto this error, especially with the revelation that the Anti Voucher organization Save Our Schools Arizona somehow obtained a similar spreadsheet. They have cried foul, swiftly condemning Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the Department while also renewing their call to take the voucher program away from the Education Department. Some want a federal investigation.
As Laurie Roberts of AZ Central has pointed out, this Republican outcry is very selective.
She pointed out that Jim Small of the Arizona Mirror recalled that there was no Republican calling for Diane Douglas’s head when the Department erroneously released similar information when AZ Merit test results were given to the community in 2017.
Furthermore, where was the Republican call for an investigation when it was found (by Kathy Hoffman’s Department when they did their own internal audit after coming into office) that parents used some of their Empowerment funds ($700,000) on non-educational expenses.
Most State Republican Legislators also seemed selectively mute when it was revealed during the December 19, 2019 meeting of the Joint Legislative Income Tax Credit Review Committee that voucher parents (many of whom probably affluent supporters of these same Republicans) have been gaming the scholarship system, filling out various applications with different criteria to get more of a tuition tax break than the voucher law originally intended.
A January 30 report by the Arizona Capitol Times (by Dillon Rosenblatt, the same writer who wrote on the spreadsheet mishap) indicated that some of the families may be using the funds as a savings plan rather than paying for education expenses.
Laurie Roberts expanded on that in a commentary piece on February 3, 2020, stating that the rules allow for the hoarding of the cash that can be spent for college or trade school tuition.
Readers should also not forget that there is a proposal for families, who had been illegally using state funds to pay for private school tuition in New Mexico, to be able to do that permanently.
Given the abuses in the system, there may be more reasons that some of these families want to protect their privacy and not have their names broadcast.
Finally, Republicans, as has been pointed out by many public servants and journalists, have failed to adequately fund the administrative staff overseeing the voucher program. While that is no excuse for the error that took place, it does show the hypocrisy of the reactionary right that claims to want to do right by the program.
Arizona Families have a right to privacy and corrections need to be made to ensure the error like the one that occurred last week does not occur again. People should judge Superintendent Hoffman and her team by reviewing if the Department’s actions to stem this from happening again are satisfactory.
The people should also stand back and judge the totality of what Kathy Hoffman and her team have done over the past year and not just have a knee jerk reaction, as the Republicans would like, to one incident that, in the end, has not publicly revealed any of the sensitive information that was accidentally released.
The citizens should also expect their legislators to act when abuses are made to the voucher system. It was not intended to be a scam for affluent families to apply for multiple scholarships and hoard the cash as a slush fund for non-K-12 needs.
Republicans who believe in small efficient government who always moan and groan about waste, fraud, and abuse about food stamps or health insurance (oh wait, that was their assessor, Paul Petersen) should be the first ones in line to want to change the law.
Otherwise, they are nothing more than hypocrites who, along with their supporters who have taken advantage of the law, are the actual personification of welfare Cadillacs.