Ski passes. New pianos. Trampoline parks.
These are some of the millions of dollars of educational extras paid for using Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA).
An advisor to the statewide, universal school voucher program is now questioning whether more accountability measures are needed, after seeing ABC15’s data analysis of transactions to 14,000 ESA vendors last school year.
Bryan Hackbarth sits on the ESA program’s parent advisory board. He says, overall, he believes in the benefits of the voucher program, especially in a state that ranks near the bottom in public education.
“I think it’s a good thing for Arizona,” Hackbarth said. “It is the right of the parents who makes a selection where those kids go to school, how they’re going to be taught, and what’s going to be taught.”
Hackbarth says his own daughter, who has autism, has thrived with the help of ESA-funded private tutors, therapy, and even piano lessons. His piano was a hand-me-down, but he knows other ESA parents who are buying new pianos for their living rooms with taxpayer dollars. He calls some of the purchases “crazy.”
“Some of the stuff I heard during [ESA] meetings – I was shocked,” Hackbarth said. “There was no oversight. In the past 10-15 years when this program started, how much money was foolishly spent?”
Hackbarth gives credit to ESA administrators for catching up on the backlog of funding requests and trying to clarify the rules, but he said more needs to be done to ensure the rapidly expanding program is in the best interest of Arizona children and taxpayers.
The ESA program’s Executive Director, John Ward, told ABC15 that 18 staff members review every purchase. During the 2022-2023 school year, the first year for universal vouchers, $304 million in ESA transactions were approved.
“The vast majority of purchases that are coming through are completely allowable,” Ward said.
This school year, Arizona families choosing private schools or home education can receive at least $7,300 per child. Children with disabilities can receive significantly more, with the maximum awards topping $40,000.
State law requires a portion of ESA monies to be spent on academics, like reading, math, and science, but the rest of the money can go for other educational purposes.
Approved expenses last year included more than $800,000 dollars for horseback riding, trips to zoos in eight states, and about three thousand transactions at indoor trampoline parks, according to state data analyzed by ABC15.
“While you may think this may not be a good use of that family’s ESA funding, at the end of the day, they get a fixed amount of money,” Ward said. “If that’s how they’re going to choose to use it, that’s their prerogative.”
Hackbarth explained ESA spending rules were originally created for children with special needs.
“I don’t think our legislature on both sides of the aisle really looked at how it was written when we decided to expand, and I think that’s where a lot of this is coming from.”
Hackbarth said he thinks the legislature should take a look next session at whether ESA law needs rewriting.
I hold faith in the [AZ House] Speaker, [Ben] Toma, that he and the education committees, I think, will look at this and start tweaking this,” Hackbarth said. He added there are two areas to focus on: possible caps on how students can use taxpayer money and finding a way to measure academic success.
“We need to make sure that we have everything in place that it would be if it’s like in a public school,” Hackbarth said. “Otherwise, it could fail.”
Arizona House leaders have formed an ad-hoc committee on ESA governance and oversight. They held their first hearing a couple of weeks ago.