Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs has also taken action regarding the Universal Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA). On Thursday, she announced that a $50 million grant to the State Treasurer’s Office by former Governor Doug Ducey (R) included funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to fund all-day kindergarten for ESA recipients. Hobbs stated that Arizona only funds half-day kindergarten, so the grant was illegal. While these funds have been made invalid, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne (R) released a statement to reporters Friday stating the ESA program, as a whole, will continue without issue.
Meanwhile, the leadership of both houses of the Arizona Legislature sent Attorney General Kris Mayes (D) a scathing letter Thursday, demanding that she redact public comments she made against Arizona’s ESA program.
“As legislators and other elected officials have long emphasized, Arizona was the first in the nation to implement universal school choice and has been a model for the rest of the country. Legal and political attacks against ES As have failed time and time again. Parents have spoken and the Legislature has enacted ESAs into law. Your job, as an executive branch official, is to execute the law, not attack it,” the lawmakers wrote.
Legislative Leaders Demand AG Mayes Retract False Statements Regarding ESAs & to Use State Resources to Serve Interests of Arizonans, Not Politics!
“Parents have spoken and the Legislature has enacted ESAs into law. Your job, as an executive branch official, is to… pic.twitter.com/QgLvDcvsGY
— Arizona House Republicans (@AZHouseGOP) May 25, 2023
Mayes made these comments in question while speaking on 12 News’s Sunday Square Off. During this segment, she spoke on her frustrations with the bipartisan Arizona State Budget and said “both sides” should have done more to reign in ESA spending. Mayes said, “there are no controls on this program,” it has “no accountability,” and that wealthy parents are “spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, and that needs to be looked at.” Additionally, she claimed there is evidence of fraud in the program and that it is her responsibility to take a “hard look” into the program and who uses it.
The group of lawmaker’s letter blasted Mayes on two points, the first being that the program does have accountability. Under the Arizona ESA law, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) must conduct or contract “random, quarterly, and annual audits” of the program to ensure all users comply with requirements. The ADE is also authorized to remove the eligibility of parents abusing the program, and the State Board of Education can then refer cases of “substantial misuse of monies” to the Attorney General.
“You have not cited a shred of evidence to suggest that either the Arizona Department of Education or the State Board of Education-both of whom you represent-have failed to comply with their statutory obligations, and there is no basis to believe that these agencies will disregard or refuse to follow the law in the future,” the Legislators wrote.
Second, the lawmakers said Mayes is responsible for investigating cases referred to her, yet that has not happened in this case. They stated the Legislature “did not authorize and does not condone the selective targeting or roving investigations of ESA parents.” They also warned her that it would “raise ethical questions” if she, as a government official, were to insinuate ESA users are conducting in criminal behavior without providing hard proof to back it up.
Therefore, the lawmakers demanded Mayes “cease making baseless and politically motivated attacks” against the program. The House officials behind the letter include Speaker Ben Toma (R-Peoria), Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham (R-Gilbert), Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci (R-Lake Havasu), and Majority Whip Teresa Martinez (R-Casa Grande). On the Senate side, President Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert), President Pro Tempore T.J. Shope (R-Coolidge), Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu), and Majority Whip Sine Kerr (R-Buckeye) signed the letter.
Moreover, Senator Justine Wadsack (R-Tucson) released her own statement sharing support for the group.
“As a parent with children who have benefited from this program, I know how impactful and important it is for Arizona families,” said Wadsack. “I’ve been a champion for school choice since I first filed for office in 2019 and will always fight to support it. Arizona can rest assured; this program is safe and it’s not going away.”
— AZSenateRepublicans (@AZSenateGOP) May 25, 2023
As reported by The Arizona Sun Times, the previous state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman (D), left the ESA program understaffed and scrambling to keep up with applications. Christine Accurso, the new head of the program, said Hoffman’s administration had approved questionable items like espresso machines and other non-educational items. The ADE’s new leader, Horne, said he is working to get the program on track so all laws are followed so “not one penny” can go to illegitimate expenses.
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Neil Jones is a reporter for The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Neil on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Kris Mayes” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0. Background Photo “Arizona State Capitol” by Wars. CC BY 2.5.