After the first meeting of Arizona’s House committee on oversight into the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, parents, activists and lawmakers alike expressed frustration by the lack of information provided to the committee.
The committee was established in May by House Speaker Ben Toma and former House Minority Leader Andres Cano in order to solicit information from experts, parents, and the Arizona Department of Education that would ensure the program is running as intended as it expands.
The first meeting consisted only of a presentation from Alan Maguire—an economist with a history of working with the legislature—and public comment. After Maguire’s presentation, members of the committee asked him questions about specifics of the program – many of which went unanswered.
Parents Weigh In
Leda Devlieger, a parent and organizer for Save Our Schools Arizona who attended the hearing, said it went about how she expected it to, but that she wasn’t impressed.
“I felt like the data presented was not very thorough and didn’t really provide much of anything,” Devlieger said. “It was more just talking points to give direction to the meeting almost. It was really interesting to see all this apparent research where there was really not a whole lot to show for it.”
After Maguire’s presentation, several members of the public testified before the committee, some in support of the ESA program, and others against.
Kathy Boltz, an ESA parent, fell somewhere in the middle. Though she has a child enrolled in the ESA program to provide support for his disability, she said she felt the program has become out of control.
“I think the lack of relevant data is glaring,” Boltz said. “I think that points to the lack of a plan for how to implement and grow this program. And I think this rapid massive growth is just appealing to a lot of inherent things that I see as problems. Although I’m not sure that our Republican legislators share that view.”
Other parents and a few school administrators testified in support of the program, which they said allowed students to pursue an education that worked best for them and their families. However, many of those testifying in support also agreed that the program has issues that need to be addressed and could benefit from more data.
Jason Paul, an ESA parent who spoke at the hearing, said the program allowed his children to stay at their private school after his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor and the family could no longer afford the tuition. He acknowledged that the program does have its issues, but said he was grateful for what it allowed his family to do.
“We understand that everything is going to have an 8020 rule to it,” Paul told the committee. “The reality is, 80% of it is good, 20% of it is going to have its messiness to it.”
Not Enough Data
Democratic Reps. Nancy Gutierrez and Marcelino Quiñonez asked questions about the types of schools ESAs were being used at, the income of parents using ESAs, and the potential for ESA enrollees to exceed budget estimates.
Maguire said he could not answer those questions, but said that based on his background working on the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, issues like the ones asked about usually smooth themselves out over time.
“These implementation challenges are pretty common in programs like this,” Maguire said. “I expect some of them to get resolved over time. They won’t all get resolved, but our ability to understand them will get better and better and better.”
Gutierrez said in an emailed statement that she had hoped the committee would be able to work towards making changes to the ESA program, but now she’s not so sure.
“It is very concerning that more data is not being collected to determine how many students are in private schools, home and micro schools and will potentially use these vouchers,” her statement said. “I was disappointed that the agenda was so short and that we didn’t hear from more people who could answer our questions. I am not as hopeful that we will make real progress before session begins.”
Issues with Committee Members
The committee itself dealt with some messiness, as the Governor’s office declined to participate after Katie Hobbs appointee to the committee, Democratic Sen. Christine Marsh was rejected. In an emailed statement, Toma, who chaired the committee, said Marsh was rejected because the Senate declined to participate as a joint committee.
“The Governor was afforded an opportunity to participate, or to choose a ‘designee,’ which has always meant someone from her office, or at least the executive branch,” the statement said. “Senator Marsh does not represent the Governor’s Office – she represents her legislative district in the state Senate. Appointing her would be effectively making an end run around the Senate President.”
In an interview with The Copper Courier, Marsh said she was disappointed in the decision because she was honored to be selected by the Governor’s office to serve on the committee.
“I’m still a parent who had kids go through public schools; I still am an employee of a public school; I still am the 2016 Teacher of the Year,” Marsh said. “(Toma’s) argument doesn’t take away my very long history in a whole lot of other roles that go beyond being the state senator for Legislative District four.”
Committee members were also unable to attend, for various reasons. Quiñonez filled in for Rep. Judy Schwiebert, who tested positive for COVID-19 the day before the hearing. Eileen Klein, former state treasurer and committee member, was also unable to attend the meeting.
At the hearing, Toma said the next meeting will be sometime in November, and the Department of Education will be invited to present. However, opponents of the program, like Devlieger, don’t have high hopes.
“My hope is that the Department of Education will have actual hard data rather than just things to talk about,” Devlieger said. “I’m not super confident in that. If I’m being honest, based on what I see from the Department of Education under Tom Horne, it seems like we see what they want us to see.”
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