With barely a quorum, and doubts about their legal footing, the Arizona State Board of Education on Friday approved revisions to the Empowerment Scholarship Account handbook. The hasty and secretive process employed by the Board left parents and education advocates stunned.
As parents and pro-Empowerment Scholarship Account advocates filled the Boardroom, only one Board member, Jennifer Clark, appeared in person for the rare Friday afternoon meeting. Board Chair Dr. Daniel Corr appeared from New York, sitting in what appeared to be his hotel room.
As the meeting would proceed, it became clear that Clark was the only member of the Board who was willing to both speak out in opposition to the quick adoption of the handbook, and listen to hear from stakeholders most affected by revisions to the handbook.
When finally given an opportunity to be heard, Clark called for the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the ADE’s “disregarding of the rules,” in the handbook development process.
Clark wasn’t the only board member who wants the Attorney General Office to intervene.
While cryptically and continually referring to the need for an opinion from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, Board Chair Dr. Daniel Corr promised more transparency to parents and the public in the future, after the Board had completed the task before them.
“Today uh as we get started, um, just a couple of kind of introductory comments, um, and first of all, uh, asking especially if you all can to keep your camera on, uh, just so we can maintain quorum,” Corr said beginning the meeting. “We’re pretty close right now, we’ve got seven. We need six to keep quorum and it’s important that we monitor that. So, I know that Dr Robbins is only with us for about the next 55 minutes or so. Um, I also want to again given that we’re mostly from a distance make sure we’re trying to project maybe even talk a little louder than you would be comfortable talking. Uh just to make sure that we’re all, uh, and keeping, um, you know, able to hear.”
“At our last meeting, the regularly scheduled meeting, we had two different, uh, executive sessions to receive legal advice, um, I know we’re all veterans of executive sessions but I do want to kind of caution and remind us as not to refer, uh, specifically to anything that went on in an executive session and again that was for the receipt of legal advice, um, and but it’s it’s important that we keep the confidentiality, um, inherent into, uh, e-session make sure that that we do that, um, as we get started,” Corr warned members before moving on to the handbook debate.
“So our task today, uh, is to grapple again with this issue of the ESA handbook. Um, I would like, uh, as we begin this meeting to have an opportunity for anyone who would like to, um, you know, have their say, if you will. Um I’m… I’m gonna invoke, if you will, um, presidential prerogative and get us started. Um, I think this is a really important moment for us as a Board. Uh I want to recognize and appreciate the efforts of the Department (ADE) to again provide us with a revised handbook on very short notice. Um, you know, I don’t know that there’s anyone on this screen who, who is perfectly happy with that handbook,” said Corr referring to his fellow Zoomers. “I don’t. I do not count myself as one who thinks it is the perfect final document, but I do recognize it is an important step forward. It is an improvement. It is, uh, moving us absolutely in the right direction and it is a product quite frankly of compromise. And maybe that no one on the screen would look at it as a perfect document, uh speaks to the fact that it is a result of compromise. Um, I have come and very much to the opinion that we will need to, um, and when we’re done all having a say, I will have a motion to that effect. I do really feel we need an AG opinion on some of these issues.”
What those issues were, was never fully explained in public. And while reference was made to changes since the previous meeting, this public meeting did not include a presentation of the changes.
Arizona Revised Statue, 15-2403 (J) requires the Arizona Department of Education to develop a handbook for those parents/users of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, commonly referred to as vouchers.
Arizona Revised Statue, 15-2403 (J) reads:
On or before July 1 of each year, the department shall develop an applicant and participant handbook that includes information relating to policies and processes of Arizona empowerment scholarship accounts. The policy handbook shall comply with the rules adopted by the state board of education pursuant to this section. The department shall post the handbook on its website.
SBE R7-2-1503, a new section of administrative rule effective January 1, 2021 and amended effective December 13, 2021, significantly decreased the time allotted to the ESA team to develop the handbook from July 1 to March 1.
Five of the eight board members who participated in Friday’s meeting were not on the SBE during 2021 when the Empowerment Scholarship administrative rules were adopted.
The “ESA team” included the following disclaimer in the handbook introduction: “If there is a conflict between statute and rule, statute supersedes, however, SBE and ADE will seek legal advice from their respective attorneys.” in an attempt to circumvent the Board’s administrative rules as statute is very limited in specifics.
The Board voted 7-1 to adopt the handbook despite concerns about its legality with a majority of the members having not been confirmed by the Senate.
The optics were not lost on parents in attendance who, like Clark, use the ESA’s, to provide essential educational services to their children.
“She is the only one who has had to live with this system, “said one distraught mother. “They didn’t hear a word she said. She was speaking for us.”