PHOENIX — State lawmakers are going to spend at least $125,000 to determine why parents seeking to use state funds for private and parochial schools say they can’t get approved.
In a meeting Thursday, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee directed Auditor General Lindsey Perry to take a closer look at the processes used by the Department of Education to approve vouchers. That follows complaints by parents of not just delays in getting the go-ahead but even problems getting telephone calls answered.
The idea of spending that much money — and putting off other scheduled audits — drew criticism from Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale. He argued that lawmakers could get some answers themselves just by asking the right questions.
More to the point, Allen said whatever problems there are could be ascertained a lot quicker and at a lower cost.
But Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said he believes a formal audit would be far less political, what with state schools chief Kathy Hoffman being a Democrat and the Legislature controlled by Republicans.
Hoffman, who took over the Department of Education in January, has never denied there is a backlog.
She has pointed out, however, that the law creating the vouchers — formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts — is supposed to give her agency 4 percent of the total being spent to administer the program. That includes not just processing applications but also auditing parents to ensure that they are spending the money as legally allowed.
Rather than providing the $3.6 million she wants, however, lawmakers put just $1.3 million into the budget.
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, in a complaint to the committee, did not dispute that Hoffman got far less than she sought. And Townsend said the evidence is that, at the moment, there are “clearly not enough employees to go through all of the various applications.”
Hoffman, for her part, has requested additional dollars for the upcoming fiscal year.
Townsend, however, said it would be improper to provide Hoffman’s agency with more cash without first auditing how the existing funds are being spent.
And Townsend said she sees something else at play. She said Department of Education employees assigned to the program seem to be spending more time performing “forensic audits” of parents to see how they are spending their cash rather than processing new applications, “which made the problem worse.”
The audit approved last week is the latest in what has been an ongoing dispute between Hoffman and some GOP lawmakers about how she administers the department.
There have been charges by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children that Hoffman is purposely trying to sabotage the program because she is not a supporter. Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, said that leads to other problems.
“There has been an issue of withholding ESA funds from parents going past a due date,” he said. “Once that due date was past, the parents could not use the ESA money for their schools.”
Allen did not dispute that might be the case, but he questioned the need for an expensive audit that won’t provide results until April 10.
“There might be something worth gleaning from that that we could get in an hour,” he said, by asking Department of Education officials to testify in front of a legislative panel. More to the point, Allen said he could probably get virtually all the questions answered “for about $200.”
“But to spend $125,000 and wait four months makes no sense to me,” he said. “If this is that urgent, let’s get on it; let’s just do it.”
Kern, however, said there are just too many issues to resolve with hearings.
“It’s not to cast blame on anybody,” he said of having the auditor general take a closer look.
“It’s just to improve the processes,” Kern continued. “And I think the money is well spent in getting the factual information (from) somebody I trust to go in there and dig it.”
Anyway, Kern suggested that an audit is more likely to get all the facts than a hearing.
“I wouldn’t necessarily trust the people standing behind the podium to give me the actual information that I want,” he said, information that could lead to legislative changes in the program.
Allen countered that if someone from the Department of Education was providing misleading information, it could be rebutted “in real time’’ by others who testify.
Gray, however, said an audit is appropriate.
“If it clearly shows that this is obvious, that we need to have more money there, then it behooves us as legislators to make that happen,” he said.
While Hoffman is a Democrat, the issue of adequate funding is not entirely partisan. Even Diane Douglas, her Republican predecessor, complained that the GOP-controlled Legislature was not providing sufficient dollars to administer the program.
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