ARIZONA, USA — More than a dozen parents spoke during public comment at the Monday Arizona State Board of Education meeting about issues with the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, also known as school vouchers.
Parents ranged in the concerns they voiced to the board over recent changes made, wait times for reimbursements and issues with a vendor that helps distribute ESA funds.
"The people had high hopes and expectations that this current administration would truly empower parents, but this doesn't seem to be the reality yet," Jay Griffin told the board during public comment.
Debit card changes
Regarding recent changes, parents voiced concerns over new ESA Executive Director Christine Accurso not allowing new families with an ESA to have debit cards to spend ESA funds.
Board Member Jennifer Clark also echoed their concerns, saying that's how families build out a custom education for their students.
"We're not cutting off any access to funds," Accurso told 12News. "Debit card is one of four ways. Two are most preferable because they're easier to access."
As of now, Accurso said 17,000 debit cards have been issued, and 16,000 are used regularly, with 750 accounts not having receipts turned in. As of Monday, the ESA website listed more than 48,500 students enrolled in the program.
Long wait times
Parents also referenced long wait times for approvals and reimbursements, some dating back to October.
"I'm waiting for reimbursements totaling several hundred dollars every month for purchases since October," one father told the board during public comment.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne (R) said the "previous administration" left 171,000 requests for payments that had not been processed by the Arizona Department of Education. Horne said a majority of those were debit cards.
"We found that debit cards are very hard to process," Horne said. "We have not taken away the debit cards, but we're trying to eliminate some of the abuses that make it hard to process them."
A mom of an ESA student told the board that her recent request for reimbursement was denied after five weeks of waiting.
"For an expense that is specifically allowed in the handbook, I'm sure it was an error. But now I have to start the process all over and wait another five weeks for reimbursement," the mom said.
More employees are needed in the ESA department, Accurso said, she's planning to hire another 22 people in the coming weeks to help process these faster. Accurso's goal is to have reimbursements turned around in 48 hours.
"I have to have staff to be able to do that," Accurso said.
Parents are also concerned over problems in ClassWallet, a vendor the state uses to administer ESA funds in a virtual account.
The father who told the board he was waiting on reimbursements since October said he's noticed issues with ClassWallet.
"A few months back we had to disconnect our bank account from ClassWallet because of unauthorized access to our personal funds, and last week ClassWallet deposited money into that same account," the father said. "The funds deposited were not from our children's accounts."
At least one other parent said they tried to upload receipts for reimbursement, but they weren't uploaded because of ClassWallet issues.
ESA parent Kathy Boltz said she's documented and told Accurso about financial irregularities with ClassWallet.
"ClassWallet withdrew amounts that they should have been depositing to vendors, which disrupted the finances of thousands of people and parents who were receiving funds for reimbursements," Boltz said.
Boltz described the system as 'unusable' and needs to be investigated and wants the Attorney General's office to investigate.
"We do not know where the money is going," Boltz said. "It is not available for our children's education and it is taxpayer funds."
12News asked Horne about ClassWallet and if he's asked the Attorney General's office to investigate the issues.
"I haven't," Horne said. "But apparently some of the parents want them to."
Horne added he doesn't have an objection to the Attorney General's office investigating, but said they are requesting proposals for another third-party vendor.
"We're doing a request for proposals to get competitive bids. And so we can choose the one that's going to be the most accurate and processing," Horne said.
12News contacted ClassWallet's media team requesting an interview on parents' concerns; however, no response has been given.
'Allowable Expenses' list changes
Recently, Accurso changed the list online that shows what's allowed to be purchased using ESA funds.
"The last month has left many of us scared to make any purchases because the department is no longer going by the handbook and is making changes to procedures mid-year via email," one mom told the board.
Accurso told the board the previously published list had items that were items on the list that weren't allowed under the law, and told the board there weren't plans to put the previous allowable list back up.
Calls for a different director
Several parents questioned Accurso's changes and asked she be removed from her post as ESA executive director.
"She doesn't understand administrative rules, how to administer the program, she does not communicate clearly," Boltz said.
"She has been in the position for 40 days and she's not focusing on what matters, which is the parent and the child," ESA parent Andrea Macintosh said.
Others questioned Accurso's education and background to serve in the position she is in.
Accurso told 12News she has some college education, but wasn't able to finish her college degree because of funding, adding she has a background in administration in the health care industry.
"It doesn't take a college degree to be able to run this program, but it does take an administrator," Accurso said.
Horne told 12News he stood by appointing Accurso as director of the ESA program.
"I don't know any administrator that I've ever known, that could do as good a job as she is doing with an incredibly difficult situation," Horne said.
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