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$700,000 in Arizona private school voucher funds may have been misused

(Pixabay)

PHOENIX — A new report found that serious problems continue with the Arizona voucher program that allows parents to use taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools.

The report by the Arizona Auditor General’s Office found that over a 13-month period, parents spent about $700,000 of the funds from their children’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts on purchases that should have been denied.

The ESA program is the subject of an initiative on the ballot for next week’s election, Proposition 305.

Some purchases cited in the report were made at athletic apparel stores, beauty supply retailers and other merchants not approved by the Arizona Department of Education, which oversees the program.

“Those transactions are not necessarily all misspending,” said Jeff Gove, performance audit manager for the Auditor General’s Office. “The only way you would know if they were misspending was to go in and actually review each of the specific receipts or other documentation for those purchases for every one of those transactions.”

However, Gove said it’s still concerning because the items purchased “don’t appear to be educational in nature” and the Department of Education’s process to screen these purchases “doesn’t appear to be working.”

Stefan Swiat, communications officer for the Department of Education, said lack of funding has made it difficult to review the purchases to see if misspending occurred.

“Our team is so woefully underfunded that they haven’t had the opportunity to go through all of those transactions, which there are about 900 of them, and actually look and see if there was actual misspending or not,” he said.

Swiat said there’s about $5.7 million dedicated for the ESA program that hasn’t been appropriated by the state legislature.

He also noted that as a way to cover administrative costs, the Department of Education should be getting 4 percent of the ESA funds that would have been distributed to a child’s prior public school. Instead, it’s only getting 1.6 percent of those funds.

The report comes less than a week before voters will decide if more Arizona students will be eligible to apply for ESA vouchers.

Currently, the program is limited to certain students, including those with disabilities, those attending D- or F-rated schools and those whose parents are in the military.

Proposition 305 would expand eligibility to all students by 2022, but it caps enrollment at about 30,000.

Swiat said there are currently about 5,000 students using the program. He said if Proposition 305 passes and staffing levels at the Department of Education don’t change, adding more students to the program would be “untenable.”

“That’s not going to be good for students, it’s not going to be good for the state, and there’s going to be repercussions for that,” he said.

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