$600,000 fraud found in Arizona voucher program, raising questions about accountability and oversight

Teach the Vote
Teach the Vote

Date Posted: 3/04/2024 | Author: Tricia Cave

Prosecutors announced Feb. 29 that five people, including three Arizona Department of Education employees, had been indicted for creating “ghost students” to siphon $600,000 from the state’s voucher program. 

According to the indictment, 17 students had been enrolled in the education savings account (ESA) program in order to obtain benefits fraudulently. Of the 17, five were adults and five were nonexistent “ghost” children. According to the indictment, the indicted parties “admitted minor students, real and fictitious, into the ESA program by using false, forged, or fraudulent documentation … awarded said students funds from the ESA program, and approved expenses for reimbursement or funds for distribution on behalf of said students for their own benefit.” Disability evaluations were submitted for all 17 students, resulting in higher levels of funding for those students. Allegedly, $20,000 to $40,000 per student, for a total of $600,000, was stolen from the program. 

The Arizona attorney general’s office was made aware of the fraud when a credit union flagged large cash withdrawals from the ESA accounts. While ESA program director John Ward said the money had been spent on “educational services,” Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes said it had been used for “luxury items.” The employees “took advantage of the lack of controls and regulations” on the program, according to Mayes.   

“My overarching concern here is that this is a program that is easy to target for fraud,” Mayes said. 

Audits in Arizona since the start of the state’s voucher program in 2011 have found voucher recipients’ using funds for “educational” expenses such as horseback lessons, televisions, kayaks, and home gyms.  

The fraud in Arizona highlights a larger concern for states across the country, including Texas. With so much money being pumped into school voucher schemes in states such as Arizona, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Florida, and Indiana, and very little oversight over how these dollars are spent, it is no wonder that fraud, waste, and abuse permeate these systems.  

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has the nation’s oldest school voucher program, one school principal used voucher funds provided for students who never attended his school to purchase two Mercedes, worth about $65,000. Studies of Milwaukee’s voucher program have shown that students using vouchers performed significantly worse in both math and reading than Milwaukee public school students.  

In Louisiana, voucher students were funneled into schools with D and F ratings, with the voucher program providing little oversight. In Florida, a 2023 voucher expansion gave parents the ability to spend taxpayer dollars meant for education on tickets to Disney World. In Indiana, four people who ran online charter schools were charged with inflating enrollment numbers to defraud the state’s voucher program to the tune of $45 million.

Here in Texas, vouchers are effectively on the ballot in the March 2024 primaries. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has spared no expense in attempting to rid himself of incumbent Republicans who opposed his school voucher scheme. Texas Ethics Commission reports show Abbott spent over $6 million from Jan. 26 to Feb. 24 to oppose pro-public school candidates. If Abbott gets his way and pro-public school House Republicans are ousted, Texas is almost sure to see a standalone school voucher scheme introduced and passed in the 89th legislative session. With many public schools adopting deficit budgets, laying off teachers and closing schools, Texas cannot afford to have public school funding sacrificed further and targeted by those seeking to profit at the expense of Texas taxpayers and students. If you have not voted in the primary yet, please do so Tuesday, March 5, and stand up for our public schools.  


Thank you for submitting your comment.
Oops, an unexpected error occurred! Please refresh the page and try again.