Analysis: Empowering Parents problems catch Little off-guard, inexplicably

The big surprise is that Gov. Brad Little was surprised.

Clearly but inexplicably blindsided, Little was forced to perform some fast damage control on one of his pet projects: the Empowering Parents education microgrant program. He called for an independent audit — to figure out how many taxpayer dollars were diverted away from honest-to-goodness student support to pay for frills like TV sets, smartwatches and clothing. He castigated his State Board of Education, saying the board had failed to keep him in the loop about problems with the $50 million program.

Never mind that, on April 28, the State Board publicly announced an in-house review of Empowering Parents, after board staff discovered an undetermined number of improper or questionable purchases. Clearly, Little knew the State Board had embarked on a painstaking review of nearly 50,000 transactions, an undertaking that underscored the severity of Empowering Parents’ problems.

Yet the problems didn’t seem to hit Little’s radar until June 7, when the governor’s staff and State Board staff met to discuss the board’s review. Two days later, Little fired off a pointed letter to State Board President Linda Clark and Executive Director Matt Freeman, calling for the audit and demanding an “action plan” from the board.

“I expect all agencies within my administration to communicate early and often on matters of this magnitude,” Little wrote. “Let’s work toward improved communication on the internal (State Board) staff review moving forward.”

Governors don’t like surprises. Even and especially the ones they should’ve seen coming.

Or surprises more or less lurking in plain sight.

A look into the paper trail

For the past several weeks, Idaho Education News has been trying to follow the Empowering Parents dollars. On May 2 — three days after the State Board announced its review — EdNews filed a public records request, seeking documents that flagged “possible violations” of the law.

A week later, the State Board provided a thumb drive containing a trove of emails, staff memos and spreadsheets. The documents provided a few answers, but raised many more questions. Many memos are unsigned. Vendors’ identities are often sketchy, the disposition of purchases often unclear. On May 16, EdNews submitted more than 1,500 words of written questions.

The State Board never responded — until Monday. “In consultation with the governor’s office, board staff will not comment, or answer questions related to the review until it is complete,” spokesman Mike Keckler said in an email.

So, in addition to calling for an audit, Little also tried to put a lid on the story.

While often unclear, the State Board’s records are also damning:

  • Problems began surfacing almost immediately, according to an unsigned March 30 project timeline. On Nov. 22, the state added Amazon to its roster of approved vendors, allowing parents to log onto the Empowering Parents online marketplace and buy computers, textbooks and other learning materials through the online behemoth. On Nov. 29, seven days later, the state flagged an ineligible Amazon purchase.
  • According to spreadsheets, the state flagged or denied a cornucopia of non-education purchases through Amazon, including a drone equipped with a camera, a metal detector, a pickleball set and gaming equipment. It is unclear whether any of these purchases were covered through taxpayer dollars. (Idaho EdNews has asked Amazon for comment on its protocols for processing Empowering Parents purchases.)
  • Primary Class Inc. — the state’s contractor managing the Empowering Parents online marketplace — found another problem area in mid-February. Primary Class, known also as Odyssey, found 133 improper purchases through another vendor, whose identity is not entirely clear. One parent attempted to purchase a gun holster through this vendor. “We have stressed to (the vendor) that this is unacceptable, and that they are ultimately responsible for these erroneous purchases,” Meaghan Barber of Odyssey said in a Feb. 17 email. “They have apologized and have committed additional resources to our account so this cannot happen again.”
  • Twenty-one vendors were suspended from the Empowering Parents online marketplace, and another left voluntarily, State Board Empowering Parents coordinator Heather Zeitlin wrote in a March 28 email. The state identified a number of questionable purchases through these vendors, including TVs and cameras, sewing machines, gift cards and fees for camps and youth competitions. Amazon is not on this list of suspended vendors. Neither is the vendor identified in Barber’s Feb. 17 email.
  • According to the March 30 project timeline, Odyssey appeared slow to police its vendors. On March 29, more than four months after the online marketplace opened, Odyssey sent vendors a list of items that are eligible, and ineligible, for state microgrants. On April 3, Odyssey confirmed that this was its first communication of this kind. Odyssey did not respond to a request for comment this week.

These snapshots represent a fraction of the State Board’s paper trail — and a window into chronic problems with the Empowering Parents grants.

A look into the future

The State Board is talking — selectively — about its review. Chief policy and government affairs officer Jenn Thompson broke the silence Wednesday, briefing board members during their meeting in Pocatello. She confirmed that the state had suspended some vendors, and said some parents could be kicked off the marketplace for improper purchases. But she said, so far, the review has found that about 80% of purchases went toward approved, legitimate education expenses.

Jenn Thompson

“The program is working the way the Legislature intended,” she said. “Parents are benefiting from the access to the funds. Students are benefiting from eligible educational expenses through the program.”

She said that the review will be finished by the end of June, and will be presented to an Empowering Parents advisory panel at its July 10 meeting in Twin Falls. And in a clear response to Little’s concerns, she emphasized that the State Board will provide weekly briefings on the program.

Damage control was the order of the day Wednesday. Freeman praised Zeitlin’s watchdog role — “It was our staff of one who identified and flagged some purchasing irregularities” — while saying his staff is committed to making the program work. Empowering Parents is one of Little’s priorities, Freeman said, which makes it a State Board priority.

Little sees Empowering Parents as a focal point of his education agenda: a way to put some education dollars directly into the hands of families. He succeeded in convincing the 2023 Legislature to make the program permanent, using $30 million a year of state money. At a pivotal point, Empowering Parents has problems. Little’s attempt to build a firewall comes as no surprise.

The surprise is that it took him this long.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. 

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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