A former public-school teacher-turned CPA has taken over leadership of Arizona’s school choice program, which administers Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). John Ward, currently serving as the Arizona Department of Education’s internal auditor, will replace former ESA director Christine Accurso.
“Christine Accurso has explained to the department that she took the ESA position to clean up the program and having successfully done that she has chosen to move on,” according to press release from the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). “We wish her well in her next opportunity.”
Accurso announced her decision to resign on Twitter:
“Yesterday, I tendered my resignation. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get the ESA program back on track and functioning well. I hired, trained, and implemented a full staff of competent, professional people who love the program and will carry it forward. I achieved much of what I set out to accomplish, but it is time for me to move on and pursue opportunities to engage citizens, especially parents, to fight for school choice and the other issues they believe in, for the future of our state and of the nation.”
Accurso is credited with not only cleaning up the ESA program after it was neglected by Horne’s predecessor, Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, she also ran a successful campaign to stop the teachers’ union’s effort to kill the ESA program through a ballot initiative.
Ward got his start as a history teacher in 2000 with the Tucson Unified School District before moving to the Phoenix area in 2006 to take a job in the Auditor General’s Office. In 2005, he earned a master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. An expert on school finance, Ward is an obvious choice to take the ESA program to the next level, according to ESA advocates.
After news of the change in the ESA program broke, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican, turned his attention to Democrat Governor Katie Hobbs’ memo attacking the ESA program for its cost.
“The Arizona Department of Education submitted a report to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) on May 30th outlining our estimates for the number of students that will participate in the ESA program by the end of the 2024 Fiscal Year,” stated Horne. “On May 31st, John Ward and I held a news conference where all aspects of these estimates, including the methodology, were thoroughly discussed and scrutinized by members of the news media. This contradicts the contention that ADE was anything less than transparent in this process.”
“The projections we released are, ironically, almost exactly the same as those in the Governor’s memo,” continued Horne. “There is a difference of only .008 percent between their numbers and ours. Questioning our methodology and our commitment to integrity in this process is unfair and unnecessary.”
“ADE is managing the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in accordance with the law. Under my Democrat predecessor, the law was not strictly followed, and ESA funds were used for non-educational purposes,” asserted Horne. “One of my first acts when I took office was to hire John Ward from the Arizona Auditor General as the internal auditor for the Department of Education. He is now the director of the ESA program, and he is as committed as I am to making sure the law is strictly enforced and every penny is spent on valid educational purposes.”
In the memo, the Governor’s office claimed the ESA program, due to its popularity, could cause a budget shortfall. Hobbs’ Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting claimed the program could cause a budget deficit of $319 million in the current fiscal year.
In May, the ADE notified the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that the projected enrollment in Arizona’s school choice program is expected to hit 100,000 students by the end of fiscal year 2024.
The popularity of the program has not been dampened by attacks on it from teacher-union-affiliated groups, or from Governor Katie Hobbs’ and Attorney General Kris Mayes’ attempts to kill the funding for it.
The exodus from traditional public schools picked up steam during the lockdowns imposed by the Trump administration and extended by the Biden administration. Traditional public school enrollment has declined steadily, leaving the teachers’ union in a panic as school choice measures have empowered parents to pull their kids from failing schools and take them, and most of the funding that accompanies each child, to better schools.
The ESA program was expanded to all K-12 students through a bill sponsored by Toma last year, has been under attack by the teachers’ union and assorted left-wing groups. Since its inception, up to and including this Legislative Session, Democrats have unsuccessfully tried a variety of legal and political tactics to kill the program.