The Voucher Vultures are back with yet another manufactured ‘crisis’

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Towards the end of the legislative session last spring, Republicans introduce legislation in response to the Arizona Department of Education rescinding participation in the ESA program from families on the Navajo Nation because funds from the accounts were used at a private school in New Mexico. The ‘Voucher Vultures’ are using Navajo children as pawns in their game:

The Arizona Republic adds some critical details, Arizona voucher bill could pay private schools 2 miles into other states:

The plan to amend the state’s voucher-like Empowerment Scholarship Account program is being pushed by Republicans after the school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children amplified concerns that some students in Window Rock might be kicked out of the program for using public money to pay private school tuition in New Mexico.

The conservative think tank Goldwater Institute sent a letter to the Department of Education contending that the children who attended the New Mexico private school, called Hilltop Christian Academy, should be allowed to continue attending the New Mexico school.

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Richie Taylor, spokesman for State Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, said Hoffman supports forgiving the money — which is in the thousands of dollars per family — already spent at the New Mexico private school, Hilltop Christian Academy.

But, Taylor said, Republican leaders are intent on changing the law to permanently allow out-of-state use of the vouchers.

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It appears the students may have been encouraged by American Federation for Children to apply to attend that school. This weekend the school’s website said this: “Arizona families can now send their children to Hilltop Christian School at little to no cost to your family! The American Federation for Children is a state-funded program for students in Arizona. Children living on tribal lands in Arizona qualify!”

The site has since been changed to correct several errors, including that the program is called the Empowerment Scholarship Account program and that it is a state program in Arizona, not a program of the school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children.

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Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools, which helped lead the campaign to successfully repeal the 2017 ESA expansion, said it appeared that the children on the Navajo Reservation were being used by special interests pushing school choice, particularly American Federation for Children.

It appears they actively recruited Native American families into unknowingly breaking the law (by using ESA at an out-of-state school) and now that the state has discovered the problem, instead of AFC admitting their role and helping the families use existing, legal solutions, they’re doubling down on exploiting them in order to try and rewrite the law,” Penich-Thacker said.

The Voucher Vultures are back again, and this time they are exploiting military families in their never-ending quest to privatize public education. The Arizona Capitol Times reports, Conservative groups plan to sue ADE over voucher funds:

Two legal organizations intend to sue the Arizona Department of Education over the state’s school voucher program on behalf of a military parent who claims her family isn’t receiving funds in a timely manner.

The Goldwater Institute and the Liberty Justice Center sent the Arizona Department of Education a notice of claim — a required advisory before suing a government entity — November 12, alleging the department has forced families who should have received state funding to pay out-of-pocket for education expenses.

“There are more than 120 families that have not received these funds in violation of their ESA contracts,” the claim alleges.

It’s the latest in a series of attacks from conservative organizations on the department’s handling of the legislatively mandated Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, which is designed to allow parents or guardians to use taxpayer money that would have gone to a student’s public school on private school tuition, tutoring and home-school curriculum.

The ESA program began specifically for special needs students, and has since grown to allow an array of students – including those who attended failing schools and children whose parents are in the military. About 6,500 students currently use the program and receive an average of about $5,000 to $6,000 annually.

The parent at the center of the planned lawsuit, referred to as K.K. in the notice of claim, is a military member. According to the notice, she was supposed to receive funding for the second quarter of the 2019-20 school year by October 30, but still did not have the money by November 12, the day the claim was filed.

Department spokesman Richie Taylor said the family in question received its second quarter disbursement of $1,939.20 on November 5, several days after the department was supposed to distribute funds but a full week before the notice of claim. ADE provided Arizona Capitol Times with mostly redacted documentation showing the family received its second quarter funding just after midnight on November 5, and then made a transaction several hours later – as well as another purchase on November 6.

The delay resulted from the parent submitting an expense report with an error, which meant it needed to be resubmitted, Taylor said.

“Had the Goldwater Institute or Liberty Justice Center called instead of sending out a press release and filing a notice of claim, they would have known,” he said.

Daniel Suhr, senior associate attorney at Liberty Justice Center, said the center expects the department to make deposits as it clears the backlog of receipts, but the systemic problem exists.

“At least 120 families have reached out to say the department failed to provide the funds critical to their children’s educational services,” Suhr said.

The bottom line is the department violated the law and its contract, he said.

Wrong. As noted above, “The delay resulted from the parent submitting an expense report with an error, which meant it needed to be resubmitted.” It was the family’s error, not the Department.

This is not the first time Kathy Hoffman, the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, and her department have been criticized for not meeting specific deadlines. The Arizona chapter of the American Federation for Children, a national school choice organization, began filming and releasing monthly videos featuring families that have had problems with the ESA program in May.

Hoffman and department staff have said the program cannot operate to its full extent without access to the full funds allowed. State law allows for up to 4% of the $91 million allocated for the ESA program to be used for administration, but lawmakers only authorized a fraction of that.

And Gov. Ducey won’t commit to more funds for school voucher program: “Gov. Doug Ducey won’t commit to providing the funds that schools chief Kathy Hoffman says she needs to properly administer the state’s voucher program.” “[T]he governor dodged a question about how Hoffman – and even her predecessor Republican Diane Douglas – said the agency needs the full $3.6 million to do the job properly and yet the budget he signed for the current year provided just a fraction of that.”

Both Hoffman and her Republican predecessor, Diane Douglas, pushed for more funds to administer the voucher program. The department now receives about $1.25 million for ESA administration, and spends about half of that on employee pay and benefits.

The department requested $1.35 million this fall to add 20 employees to its ESA oversight unit, which now has 13 positions who handle voucher applications, answer parent questions and review expenses.

Before considering the request, lawmakers ordered the state auditor to investigate how the department spends the $1.25 million it currently receives. That audit is expected to be completed by April 10.

So as Republicans try to paint Democrat Hoffman as state’s political fiend, the truth is the actual “fiend” is the same as it ever was: our radical Republican-controlled legislature that wants to dismantle public education, and our feckless Republican governor.

Julie Erfle writes at the Arizona Mirror, Goldwater Institute seeks freedom from constitution’s reach:

Most of us are familiar with the Goldwater Institute, the so-called liberty-loving conservative think tank that claims its goal is to “advance, defend, and strengthen the freedom guaranteed by the constitutions of the United States and the fifty states.”

It’s a noble mission statement, and one I would personally support. Too bad it’s counter to what the organization actually practices.

A prime example of how the mission falls short is evidenced in the organization’s most recent lawsuit threat.

Last week, the Goldwater Institute filed an intent to sue the Arizona Department of Education for delayed payments to families who use the Empowerment Scholarship Account, or ESA, voucher program.

ESA vouchers are a creation of the Goldwater Institute. The program gives qualifying families public taxpayer dollars to use at private or religious schools or for educational therapies or curriculum, among other things.

the Legislature’s original voucher plan because it violated our state’s constitutional ban on public funding for private and religious schools.

But the Goldwater Institute didn’t give up. Since it couldn’t operate a true voucher system that adhered to the Arizona Constitution, it simply created a workaround – a legal remedy to skirt our framers’ original intentions.

Instead of having the state make distributions to private and/or religious schools, ESA voucher funds are loaded onto a debit card and given directly to parents. Because parents have the option to use funds for purposes other than religious or private schools, the system is technically legal.

As I wrote back in 2014, the Arizona Supreme Court effectively endorsed the Goldwater Institute’s legal legerdemain accepted by the Court of Appeals in Niehaus v. Huppenthal, No. 12-042 (Ariz. App. Ct., Div. One Oct. 1, 2013) to effectively render two constitutional provisions null and void sub silentio. Arizona Courts disregard the Constitution, authorize the privatization of public education. This was a politically expedient decision wrongly decided, and should be reversed.

Vouchers do the exact opposite of what our constitution demands. They do not maintain appropriations for the “development and improvement” of public schools or give rise to a “general and uniform public school system.”

I suspect the high-priced attorneys at the Goldwater Institute are keenly aware of this fact. I also suspect their recent interest in ESA voucher payments has nothing to do with the program and everything to do with a concerted effort on the right to vilify State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.

See above, Republicans paint Democrat Hoffman as state’s political fiend.

Why?

roundly rejected universal voucher expansion. Knowing they cannot rely on the voters to weaken the constitution, they’re in search of willing partners to help them do their bidding.

The Goldwater Institute needs to neutralize Hoffman, and it seems they’re trying to do so by creating a make-believe scandal about delays in ESA voucher disbursements.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education told the Mirror the delays in question were a result of self-reported errors that needed to be clarified before payment could be initiated. Once the errors were fixed, funds were disbursed.

It seems the only purpose of the lawsuit threat is to waste precious time and resources at an already underfunded department and, as the ADE spokesperson suggested, to score political points.

How sad.

Our state is facing a classroom crisis. Teachers are fleeing. Students are crammed into classes.

Instead of attempting to make this situation worse, the Goldwater Institute could uphold its mission statement and support the efforts of others who are working to defend the state constitution.

They could back the schools currently suing the state over a decade’s worth of cuts to building and capital expenses – more than $2 billion.

Or, they could be advocating for an end to the private- and public-school tax credits that create an uneven playing field among schools and are a clear violation of a “general and uniform” school system.

Of course, we know the Goldwater Institute isn’t planning to support funding equity, and it’s their right to take an oppositional stance. But is it too much to ask for them to be honest with Arizonans?

Manipulating education policy so that it benefits the privileged few over the intended many does not advance, defend, or strengthen our Constitution. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Well said.




1 COMMENT

  1. If I money laundered drug money thats a felony. Goldwater and their happy band of co-conspirators can money launder taxpayer money and they become indignant when they cant spend it fast enough. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, with a chief conspirator on the Supreme Court. Goldwater purports to support constitutional government but conveniently ignores it on vouchers.

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