Arizona lawmakers rush to preserve vouchers for Navajo kids

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona lawmakers are moving to allow a handful of children from the Navajo reservation to continue using school vouchers at a Christian school in New Mexico.

Emergency legislation given initial approval on a House voice vote Thursday gives seven children another year to use their Empowerment Scholarship Account for private-school tuition in another state, though the law requires vouchers be used at Arizona schools. Identical legislation awaits Senate action, where it has also has strong bipartisan support.

The plight of the Navajo children rocketed to lawmakers' attention when the school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children released a video over the weekend. It showed parents blasting the Arizona Department of Education for letters demanding they repay the money illegally spent out of state.

The affected children used their vouchers at Hilltop Christian School in Tse Bonito, New Mexico, which is less than a mile from the Arizona state line. The legislation, which has strong bipartisan support, would ensure the parents don't have to refund past tuition payments and allow the children to continue at Hilltop for another year.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said her staff discovered the vouchers were being used in New Mexico during a routine audit.

Hoffman said the legislation is a good compromise that gives the affected families time to figure out their next steps while respecting the will of voters, who voted last year to reject an expansion of the voucher program. She said the children could use their voucher at an Arizona school or seek private funding to stay at Hilltop.

She accused the American Federation for Children of misinforming parents, noting the Hilltop website says the school accepts Arizona vouchers and directs parents to the advocacy group for more information.

"We want to make sure we're not harming those students, especially considering the circumstances where they were misled by AFC," Hoffman said. "But we didn't want to open the door for voucher expansion."

Steve Smith, state director for the American Federation for Children, said his organization is merely trying to help parents "get their voices heard." He accused Hoffman and her department of acting heartlessly.

"A reasonable solution, which I think is what we're working on now, should've been the approach initially," Smith said. "And I don't think the heavy hand of government should've come crashing down on people who did not do anything wrong."

The vouchers, known officially as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, allow parents to take 90 percent of the state money a local public school district would receive to pay for private, religious or home-based education. The average student who isn't disabled currently receives about $6,000 a year to pay for tuition or other costs, while disabled students get about $20,000.

Just under 6,000 children received vouchers as of April.

Families approved for the program get a debit card to pay for expenses and must submit quarterly receipts. Hoffman said her department faces a backlog of reviewing receipts because it's been underfunded by the Legislature. The agency is planning to hire a new vendor that would provide more proactive oversight, she said.

The Department of Education had approved vouchers for 10 children that were used at Hilltop for a total of about $13,700, according to the Department of Education. Three were revoked for other reasons before the department discovered the school was in New Mexico.

The voucher program has been a flashpoint in Arizona politics for years. It started in 2011 as a small program for disabled children and has been repeatedly expanded to cover more students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Native American reservations, foster children and children of military members.

Lawmakers in 2017 enacted the nation's most ambitious expansion of private school vouchers, making them available to every student in the state, with a cap of 30,000 slots. A group of parents collected enough signatures to put the expansion on hold until voters could weigh in. They soundly rejected it in the 2018 election and elected Hoffman, a voucher skeptic and the first Democrat to hold the superintendent position in nearly 25 years.