Congressman Raúl Grijalva wants the U.S. Department of Education to investigate a series of recorded calls in which the state school superintendent promoted a voucherlike program for private schools.
Grijalva sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Monday asking for an investigation into whether the Arizona Department of Education furnished confidential student and family information to a third party.
The recorded phone calls, known as “robocalls,” featured a recording of State Superintendent John Huppenthal urging parents to take advantage of the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program.
The program uses taxpayer money to pay for private school scholarships for children with disabilities, in foster care, who live in areas with low rated schools or have parents in the active duty military.
The calls, made last week, outraged public-school advocates, who said Huppenthal was promoting private school education over the public schools he oversees.
Huppenthal defended the phone calls but expressed regret that public school teachers may have been offended.
“My reason for agreeing to inform families of this opportunity was to apprise parents of a unique program, not advocate for private school instruction over that of a public school education,” he said in a statement issued last week.
Grijalva wanted to know how private student and family information, such as addresses and phone numbers, were made available to a third-party organization when federal law protects that information.
A representative for Arizona Alliance for School Choice, which paid for the robocalls, said the organization did not get the information from the Arizona Department of Education.
Huppenthal released a statement Tuesday saying his department did not provide any contact information to the Arizona Alliance for School Choice.
The investigation request started with a conversation between Grijalva and his daughter, Tucson Unified School District Governing Board President Adelita Grijalva, who said she was expressing her displeasure with the robocalls.
She wanted help from the U.S. Department of Education because she wasn’t confident that the Arizona Attorney General’s Office would seriously investigate.
Kim Martinez, spokeswoman for the Arizona Alliance for School Choice, said the organization did not use private student information to make the calls.
Almost 15,000 families in the Tucson and Phoenix areas with low-rated schools received a call, Martinez said, and about 48,000 mailers were sent out.
The organization examined Education Department records to get the ZIP codes of low-rated schools, she said, which a contractor then used to assemble contact information.
“It’s not groundbreaking or extraordinary,” she said. “It’s what every political candidate does when they’re trying to get the word out.”
Adelita Grijalva said she was skeptical and still wants an investigation to ensure no laws were violated.
The phone calls and mailers are part of a $250,000 campaign paid for by the Alliance for School Choice, the Goldwater Institute and other groups to raise awareness of the scholarship program, which is overseen by the state Department of Education.
Huppenthal disputed allegations he was trying to help the Alliance for School Choice after the group spent $63,000 on a radio ad to help him get elected in 2010.