Governor touts family grants as solution for school choice

As state leaders discuss options for spending education dollars next year, Idaho’s Empowering Parents grant program is increasingly part of that conversation.

Gov. Brad Little has proposed making the first-year program permanent with a $30 million a year investment from state sales taxes — his only school choice-related line item. He presented the idea during his State of the State address and it will now need to filter through the halls of the Statehouse. 

And state superintendent Debbie Critchfield also is drawing attention to the first-year grant program amidst a contentious debate about education savings accounts and school choice options.

The superintendent told members of the House and Senate education committees that she does not support vouchers, or any other program that would divert funds from public schools, but she’s considering the idea of expanding Empowering Parents to offer families more options.

But as Idaho leaders tout Empowering Parents as a school choice solution, the initiative has first-year problems to iron out.

How the Empowering Parents grants currently work

The Empowering Parents program provides education spending micro-grants directly to families. 

They can choose, with some limitations, to purchase academic resources that best help their children succeed, like computers or textbooks. The money cannot fund private or religious school tuition or scholarships. 

The concept started during the pandemic years when federal coronavirus aid flowed freely to states. Two and half years ago, Idaho used the money to create its Strong Families, Strong Students initiative, which provided education grants and reimbursements to help students academically because classroom time was disrupted by the pandemic.

Last year, lawmakers extended the Strong Families concept with a new $50 million effort called Empowering Parents — a similar program with two notable changes.

With Empowering Parents, families can no longer seek reimbursements for items purchased outside the marketplace, an online shopping platform where vendors provide education products for families to buy. Another change to the program, and it’s a change that brought challenges, is the vendor selected to run the state’s online website: Primary Class is a New York-based company that uses software called Odyssey.

With Odyssey, parents have less flexibility because all transactions have to occur within the marketplace. Parents apply online, work through the eligibility process, and then receive grants of up to $1,000 per child or $3,000 per family to purchase education equipment or services at the state’s digital marketplace. It’s like a digital wallet.

State leaders who got the program started met administrative hiccups along the way. Facing a 45-day deadline, state officials overcame their slow start and launched the Odyssey site in late September, five months behind schedule.

Odyssey accepts applications and determines eligibility based on an applicant’s income level and proof that they have a child attending an Idaho school. Odyssey was paid $1.485 million by the state to handle applications and also run the marketplace.

If the program is funded again, the state will seek new bids for review by the State Division of Purchasing, and Odyssey is welcome to submit again, said Mike Keckler, State Board of Education spokesperson.

Money is reaching Idaho families, but most of it is unspent. Families have used only $6.7 million — mostly to buy technology. Another $23.4 million sits unspent in family accounts, and the remaining $19.9 million has yet to be dispersed.  

Parents have until June 30, 2024 to spend their money; any unused money will go back to the state.

“You just have to work through growing pains,” said Tracie Bent, the State Board’s chief planning and policy officer. “You’ve always got challenges when you start up, and then after a year or so it moves more smoothly.” 

Much of the criticism from Idaho families centers on Odyssey’s inefficiencies.

Frustrated parents complained when accounts went unfunded for months; others said purchased items went undelivered while their children began school and needed the equipment. Some said there was no response from Odyssey’s customer service department to emails and phone calls. EdNews called the website’s support line on two different days. The first call was placed on hold and then ended; on the second day, a support technician was available and answered questions promptly.

And despite the State Board’s prediction that nearly all of the money would be in parent accounts by mid-January, nearly $20 million has not been awarded yet.

So far, Odyssey has processed just over 25,000 online applications. The state provided EdNews with results on how the company handles customer support tickets. The state reported the following information: 

  • An 82.9% customer satisfaction rating.
  • The website has been available 100% of the time.
  • 84.5% of the time a single customer service person solved the problem.

The state spent $1.1 million less on administrative costs with Odyssey compared to the Strong Families’ vendor, ClassWallet, according to Kate Talerico for the Idaho Capital Sun.

Keckler wouldn’t speculate on whether spending more money on the vendor would have produced better results. He said Odyssey is addressing problems as they come up.

“It is not unusual for unexpected challenges to occur when new products or platforms are launched,” Keckler said. 

Bent said Odyssey could do a better job of notifying customers, and is tweaking the system to keep customers consistently notified about product shipments. But it’s not done yet.

“That’s a question that we get often, so just little tweaks like that we’re always looking at and trying to improve,” Bent said.

The tax commission’s role

The Idaho State Tax Commission verifies the adjusted gross income of applicants for Odyssey because grants are awarded to Idaho’s neediest families first. To be eligible, applicants must have filled out a tax return or an exemption Form 40.

“The Idaho State Tax Commission has no role in researching or approving eligibility for applicant families,” said Julie Eavenson, the tax commission’s spokesperson.

Idaho parents with an adjusted gross income at or below $60,000 qualified for the first wave of funding; applicants with income below $75,000 are next in line, and if there is money left, families with AGI above $75,000 may be eligible for grants.

Waiting on the advisory committee

State leaders have not yet appointed the seven-member parent advisory committee charged with suggesting changes about the Empowering Parents program to the State Board.

But some families have still made informal requests for items not approved as eligible education expenses. These items were requested but denied: phones, smartwatches, furniture, clothes, recreational equipment and household appliances.

Once appointed, the parent committee can suggest additions to the state’s list of eligible expense.

Bent suggested that allowing State Board staff members to make recommendations to the board would speed up the process of helping the program make adjustments.

“We could move more quickly, more nimbly,” Bent said.

The following items are eligible purchases:

  • Specialized services, including physical, occupational and speech therapy.
  • Educational software, textbooks, curriculum, tutoring.
  • Educational hardware, including tablets and computers, and internet access.
  • Fees, including standardized testing, advanced placement or university exams.

“And I suspect that that’s one of the things the group will look into,” Bent said.

The state will continue accepting applications and dispersing money until it exhausts all funds, or Odyssey’s contract expires in the summer of 2024.

Visit Odyssey’s website here to learn more about the program. If you are a parent or guardian of a K-12 student attending a public or private school, or are homeschooling, you can apply.

 

Darren Svan

About Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan is based in the Treasure Valley and has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected]

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