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Proposed voucher accountability rules nixed by Arizona Republicans

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Alex Gonzalez

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(Arizona News Connection) Arizona Superintendent of Public Education Tom Horne and the State Board of Education have rejected a move to enact a new ESA Voucher Handbook.

Proposed by the Arizona Department of Education, the handbook would have set safeguards to ensure responsible spending of taxpayer funds for what are known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Instead, they stuck with last year's book.

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Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said she's disappointed. She thinks Arizona voters now need to look to the Legislature and Governor Katie Hobbs to prioritize accountability for the controversial ESAs. Lewis sees it as a missed opportunity to give taxpayers more transparency about the funds put into vouchers.

"There are all of these incredibly extravagant expenditures that are being approved," she said. "These laws weren't going to do a lot, but they were going to provide a bare minimum of accountability there."

Lewis said having rules in place would also have been helpful for parents using the vouchers to know what is allowed and what isn't. She's heard of instances of spending funds on waterpark tickets, TVs, Apple watches and expensive musical instruments.

In a letter to the State Board, state Senator Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, argued the handbook "overstepped" the Legislature, which "has not set any restrictions" on items that can be purchased with ESA vouchers.

Lewis contended that Arizona's public schools are good stewards of taxpayer funds, because when they make purchases, they're seen as investments for years to come.

"So, it's not just one child who owns that trombone forever," she said. "That is utilized, year over year. And that is just the perfect example of why public funds are pooled together for public schools, and why the voucher program really doesn't work when you put it under a microscope."

According to recent polling from Education Forward Arizona, most voters are concerned that teachers are underpaid and public schools are underfunded in the Grand Canyon State.

Lewis called Arizona's ESA voucher program a "complete black box," and contended the proposed safeguards were what she terms "common sense."