Top ed official debunks claims of reckless ESA spending in Arizona

(The Center Square) – Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne responded to claims that Empowerment Scholarship Account funds can be used for purchases such as Lego sets with little…

(The Center Square) – Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne responded to claims that Empowerment Scholarship Account funds can be used for purchases such as Lego sets with little educational value.

Horne made reference to a tweet from Save Our Schools Arizona showing a Facebook post asking what kinds of Lego sets are covered by the funds and a photoshopped picture of a $559 Star Wars Lego set. 

“Contrary to a falsified document tweeted by Save Our Schools, no ESA parent has been reimbursed $500 to buy Legos. To be clear, district, charter and ESA students are allowed to use Legos. The issue here is a pattern of lying. Save Our Schools admitted they fabricated a document to make it look like a parent made a $500 purchase when she did not. By doing so they have misled both the Governor and a prominent newspaper columnist, both of whom have retweeted this lie,” Horne said.

The Republican education official’s news release pointed out a tweet from Tyler Kowch, who’s the communications manager for the organization, explaining that the graphic was intended to prove a broader point about spending.

“It’s almost like we weren’t trying to trick anyone, so we intentionally didn’t format it to look like it was included in the Facebook post,” Kowch tweeted on Nov. 17. “We simply provided an example of what a parent could purchase under the ESA guidelines — are we mistaken that this would be approved.”

Horne added that most of the non-educational purchases that were approved happened under former Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who lost to Horne in 2022. 

“They continue to say that outlandish purchases such as trips to Disney parks, personal vacations, food items, ocean cruises and the like are being approved as ESA expenses when they are not,” he said. “The interesting thing is that Save Our Schools not only lied and fabricated but turned the actual facts on their head. Approvals like those came during the prior superintendent’s administration led by a friend of the leader of Save Our Schools, and one of my first acts in office was to put an end to it.”

Beth Lewis, who leads Save Our Schools Arizona, told The Center Square in a statement that his response does not account for issues with ESA oversight.

“Supt. Horne accusing Save Our Schools Arizona of lying is rich, considering he has been convicted of violating campaign laws, violating anti-fraud laws and filing false financial reports. Supt. Horne knows that universal vouchers are rife with fraud and misuse, and he is fully aware the ADE is currently approving vast sums of voucher funding for exorbitant, non-educational items,” Lewis said.

“This tantrum in the form of a press release shows he just doesn’t want taxpayers to know where their dollars are going, but SOSAZ will continue our efforts to shine transparency on voucher misuse and fraud if the ADE will not,” she continued.

The universal Empowerment Scholarship Account program is a fairly new concept, as it was signed into law by former Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in July 2022. Arizona was the first state to enact universal school choice. 

As of Nov. 27, there are 70,925 students enrolled in the program, according to the Arizona Department of Education website. The model essentially allows parents to use funds typically allocated toward students in public schools for other education expenses, such as tuition or homeschooling materials. Critics of the program argue that it bleeds funding from public schools and say it could lead to consequences for the state’s budget, The Center Square previously reported.