Parent panel dives into recommendations for state microgrant program

The Empowering Parents parent advisory panel approved a series of recommendations for the future of the $30 million state microgrant program Thursday. The recommendations will be shared with the State Board of Education, and can be worked into the program or rejected.

The 7-member parent panel (with state superintendent Debbie Critchfield sitting at its helm as the nonvoting chair) has spent the past three months delving into the details of Empowering Parents, a statewide microgrant program that allows families up to $3,000 to spend on supplemental educational materials via Odyssey, a contracted online vendor platform.

According to Idaho statute, the parent panel’s role is to recommend to the State Board what items should be eligible for purchase under the statutory ‘Other’ category. It’s also tasked with considering appeals and recommending decisions to the State Board.

These roles were clarified during Thursday’s meeting, after some committee members raised concerns about usurping state statute, or participating in a circular appeals process.

“We’re not changing state statute,” clarified Critchfield. “Everything that this panel does is 100% a recommendation. You could recommend that the money be used to send kids to Mars. You really could.”

After recommendations are submitted, State Board officials will work with lawyers and lawmakers to enact them to the extent possible, and recommendations made by the panel regarding appeals will not impact past eligibility or past purchases.

At the end of Thursday’s three-and-a-half-hour meeting, the parent panel dove into some recommendations.

  • Allowing public schools to offer services to all students, public and nonpublic. Statute currently allows public schools to offer for-fee services to nonpublic students, but not public school students. During the last panel work session, Sen. Lori Den Hartog, an original co-sponsor of the legislation, told the committee that the limitation goes against the intention of the law. In response, the panel agreed Thursday to recommend that all students be able to use Empowering Parents money to access for-fee service provided by school districts, public teachers or public charters.
  • Limiting Empowering Parents funds to Idaho residents. This recommendation comes in response to word that families living out-of-state, with children attending Idaho schools, could legally access Empowering Parents funds. Panelist Amy Henry suggested that funds should be limited to students who live in Idaho, and the recommendation was approved by all panelists.
  • Adding an additional year. Empowering Parents currently allows families to use their funds up to two years after they are awarded. But according to Henry, some families hit that deadline with money still in their accounts, and are spending it on items that aren’t immediately necessary just to avoid wasting it. She recommended that the panel add one year onto the allotted time for a total of three years, and the motion passed unanimously.
  • Clarifying rules for two-household families. Panelist Holly Cook of Boise suggested that the State Board create and publish a policy clarifying that for two-household families, the parent that holds the authority to make educational decisions for their child will receive control of how their Empowering Parents allotment is spent. The panel passed the motion unanimously, and without discussion.
  • Internet reimbursements. For many families in rural and remote Idaho, the internet service options offered on the Empowering Parents platform aren’t available, said Henry, to a chorus of agreement. The panel approved her suggestion to recommend that locally provided internet services be eligible for reimbursement by the State Board, using Empowering Parents funds.
  • Lenience for past mistakes. The panel agreed that families who inadvertently made an ineligible purchase should not be kicked off of the online platform, and should be allowed to make future purchases of approved goods and services.

This is not the final list of recommendations. The panel still needs to discuss the appeals process, and will continue considering recommendations at future meetings.

Odyssey representative leaves panelists with more questions than answers

Representative Meaghan Barber of New York-based Primary Class Inc. (also known as Odyssey), the contracted online platform for the Empowering Parents program, fielded questions from panelists Thursday — but she pushed most answers into the future.

Panelists asked different iterations of the same looming question Thursday: If Odyssey’s role is to screen vendors and prevent fraud by only allowing approved items to be sold, how were parents able to purchase at least $180,000 worth of ineligible items off the platform last year?

The question comes in response to an in-house State Board review of the Empowering Parents program. According to the June 30 report, less than 1% of taxpayer-funded purchases were ineligible last year. But about 6% — roughly 3,000 transactions — involve items that may or may not eventually fall under the program’s scope, like school camps and classes, uniforms or educational equipment. And an additional 8% of purchases remain under review.

Thursday’s meeting was not the first time Odyssey heard of the improper purchases.

Odyssey’s rollout of the program has been rocky from the start — according to documents obtained by Idaho Education News through a public records request, it took four months for Odyssey to send vendors a list of items that were eligible or ineligible, for state microgrants.

Since the June 30 report, the contractor has been working with the State Board to review purchases, and promised in June to pay back the misused funds to the state, along with nearly $479,000 in interest earned on the account — a breach of the state’s contract, according to the Idaho Department of Administration.

Still, Barber was unprepared for panelists’ questions Thursday.

“The platform was originally designed to be a menu of services that were pre-approved to eliminate the risk of fraud,” said Holly Cook. “Can you explain to me how it is that there are so many ineligible purchases at this point? How did that occur?”

At first, Barber’s response focused on the overall success of the program — 99% of purchases were eligible. She added that Odyssey is cooperating closely with the State Board to review a small number of ineligible purchases to “better understand the details of the purchase.”

“I don’t think that quite answers my question,” responded Cook. “I’m wondering how it’s possible to have these ineligible purchases if the platform is only designed to allow eligible purchases.”

“I will have to come back to you and get a response from our team to that,” responded Barber.

“I’m gonna give this one more shot,” said Jason Sevy later in the meeting. “How are items getting on the platform that are not approved?”

Again, Barber said that Odyssey is working closely with the State Board to review ineligible items, and that she would follow up with the panel in an email.

Panelists repeatedly asked another question: Why are vendors/items being deemed eligible at first, but later getting removed from the platform?

“We’re wondering if there have been changes mid-stream to the program?” asked Cook.

“Odyssey is extremely committed to closely working with the State Board to make sure that we are following the guidance that comes from it and implementing based on the guidance that we have,” Barber responded. “I’m not sure if that answers your question, I’d be happy to follow up in an email afterwards.”

Cook then highlighted Amazon as an example of a vendor that was approved and later removed from the platform, pushing Barber for an answer. The representative responded that she was aware of the situation with Amazon, but was not on the team when the vendor was originally approved.

“I would have to actually talk to our team internally…and come back to you with that answer.”

“Maybe you’ve answered this, but I’m going to ask one more time,” said Amy Henry later in the meeting. “And if you can do this without needing to follow up with us, I’d really appreciate it. How is it that Odyssey as a contractor is determining, both in the past and currently, eligible versus ineligible items?”

Barber responded that Odyssey bases eligibility off of a list of purchasable items. Henry asked Barber for a past and current version of that list.

“It seems that now, in real time, these eligible items are changing,” said Henry.

“We have a list, and I’d be happy to share that and talk with the team to get retroactive information for you,” responded Barber. Barber did not give a timeframe for sending Odyssey’s answers to the panel.

Jenn Thompson, Chief Planning and Policy Officer for the State Board, later clarified some aspects of the panelists’ questions.

To concerns that parents would be asked to repay money for items that were once considered eligible and later rescinded, Thompson reminded panelists of Odyssey’s agreement to foot the bill for the ineligible items.

“Boundaries around what items were allowed to be purchased may have been broader than we thought,” said Thompson. “I don’t want to throw Odyssey under the bus because I recognize that they’re doing the best they can to navigate the process.” Originally, the State Board thought Odyssey could control what items were on and off the platform, but later realized that was not the case, Thompson further explained.

She added that both the State Board and Odyssey are currently conducting a review of all items on the platform, and moving forward, they will evaluate every purchase within 48 hours. If a purchase is found ineligible, it will be reversed within that time period.

The Empowering Parents panel cut the agenda short Thursday after its two-and-a-half-hour meeting. The council will hold an interim work session before meeting again in September.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber, a former reporter with Ed News that focused on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley.

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