PHOENIX — In an exclusive interview for this weekend's "Sunday Square Off," Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes said her office will investigate potential fraud, waste and abuse in Arizona's universal school voucher program.
"There are no controls on this program. There's no accountability, and they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money," Mayes said during Friday's "Square Off " taping.
"That needs to be looked at. I'm the state's top law enforcement officer, and I think it's my responsibility to do that."
Mayes, who took office in January, didn't cite any specific issues her office might investigate.
During budget negotiations, Mayes raised her concerns that school voucher spending was cutting into funding for law enforcement.
Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs had called for repealing last year's universal voucher expansion. She settled for new accountability measures in the state budget, triggering a short-lived revolt by her fellow Democrats, who wanted to see a cap on voucher spending.
Arizona's school voucher program, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, is the first in the country that's open to every student in the state.
All 1.1 million Arizona students are now eligible for $7,000 or more to pay for private or parochial school, or home schooling, as well as education-related expenses.
ESA enrollment has more than quadrupled in less than a year, from 12,000 to 56,000 students.
The program is overseen by the State Department of Education. Republican School Superintendent Tom Horne, a former attorney general, issued this response to Mayes' plan:
Under my predecessor, who was unfriendly to universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), the laws were not strictly enforced, and therefore funds were used for non-educational purposes, including restaurants and clothing stores. Because I am the defender of the ESA program, I want the laws to be strictly adhered to. I want to ensure that not one penny is used for a non-educational expense. Arizona is the first in the nation, and a model for the rest of the country. I am determined that all laws be strictly enforced, and all funds be used only for valid educational purposes. I’m disappointed that Attorney General Mayes has chosen, at every single opportunity, politics over the law.
Mayes and Horne have been at odds recently over her refusal to defend a year-old state law that bans transgender athletes from competitive school sports. She authorized Horne to defend the law.
Voucher spending is projected to total at least $1.5 billion over the next four years. There is no cap on spending. Schools are not required to post information on students' performance. There are a few barriers to ESA vendors.
Many ESA parents who homeschool or have special needs children have raised questions about the program's accounting and expense management. Those families were among the first eligible for vouchers a decade ago.
Also on "Square Off," Mayes also discusses her investigation of fake sober-living homes that have billed the state's Medicaid program for hundreds of millions of dollars.
Rafael Carranza, who reports in the border and immigration policy, explains why the anticipate migrant surge after the end of Title 42 hasn't materialized.
"Sunday Square Off" airs at 8 a.m. Sundays on 12News, after NBC's "Meet the Press," with moderator Chuck Todd.
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