Jonathan Hoffman: Data breach the latest failure in the administration of the Empowerment Scholastic Accounts
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Jonathan Hoffman: Data breach the latest failure in the administration of the Empowerment Scholastic Accounts

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The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Recently, the Arizona Department of Education experienced a “data breach” in which the personal information of approximately 7,000 families participating in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program ended up in the hands of Save Our Schools Arizona, an organization openly hostel to the ESA program.

What is going on over at the ADE?

So, what is the ESA program anyway? ESA is a state level program that provides educational funding for children considered disabled, who attend a school or school district that has been assigned a letter grade of D or F, the children of a parent who is a member of the armed forces of the United States and who is on active duty or was killed in the line of duty, children who reside within the boundaries of an Indian reservation in this state, among other qualifications.

The funds are placed in an account from which parents may purchase educational materials, educational therapy for disabled students, other homeschooling supplies, tutors and private school tuition.

What seems odd to me is the extraordinary hostility toward this program. Groups from SOSA to the NEA argue against these sorts of programs stating, among other things, that they transfer much needed funds out of district schools. This is true, but what they fail to mention is the fact that they also transfer a concomitant expense from district schools in the form of the student. Why wouldn’t district schools, and their advocates, support specialized attention to disabled students provided outside the district?

In that way, districts would be relieved of responsibility of developing and administering special programs for special needs students and focus on improving basic education outcomes — a task for which they are structurally capable. Is there some other motivation involved?

Now, it is certainly true that this “data breach” event could be viewed as a stand-alone incident, but that would require ignoring a litany of past mismanagement and lawbreaking by the ADE. Some of the program’s abused participants found help from the Goldwater Institute, which filed a lawsuit last month on their behalf. In a letter to Superintendent Kathy Hoffman (no relation), Goldwater attorney Tim Sandefur stated, “Although we are aware of several claims, the most egregious ones involve (1) ADE’s recent failure to release ESA funds in a timely manner, (2) its regular practice of demanding the return of so called “misspent” funds many months after the purported misspending, and sometimes even years afterward, and (3) its reliance on the ESA Handbook.”

The ESA Handbook, by the way, is a rulebook created and enforced by flouting legally required processes. There have been times, for example, when the ADE discovers what it believes to be an improper expenditure and instead of requiring the return of the funds and restoring them to participants account, the ADE keeps them, effectively charging the participant a fine for which there is no provision in the law.

There have also been cases in which the ADE inexplicably delayed the release of funds so long that participants had to cancel classes or pay out of pocket without reimbursement.

Defenders of superintendent Hoffman, in a classic act of “whataboutism,” point to a similar event that occurred during Diane Douglas’ administration. However, I don’t think that in that case the information made its way to SOSA.

This is more than incompetency. Incompetents are rarely clever enough to find ways to enforce laws that do not exist or evade laws with which they must comply. While ultimate responsibility lies with Hoffman, an independent investigation should be held to determine who is directly responsible, and to find an appropriate remedy.

Meanwhile, how do you suppose SOSA will use their new information windfall?

Jonathan Hoffman has lived and worked in Tucson for 40 years. Write to him at tucsonsammy@gmail.com.

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