Gov. Brad Little gave the Empowering Parents education microgrant program a clean bill of health Monday, after the release of an independent audit.
The audit, ordered by Little, pinpointed less than $41,000 in improper purchases, a small fraction of the $50 million of the federal funding that went into the program.
“One rarely finds 99.9-percent success with anything in life, especially while rolling out a new program,” Little said in a news release Monday afternoon. “I am very pleased with the results of the audit.”
But there’s an asterisk. The audit also reflects changes in the Empowering Parents checklist of eligible purchases — and new rules that will give families more options for spending their share of the grants.
The release of the audit comes at the end of a checkered first year for Empowering Parents, one of Little’s centerpiece education initiatives.
Rolled out last fall, the Empowering Parents program was designed to allow parents to use grants to cover out-of-pocket education costs, such as laptops, internet access or textbooks, among other items.
Soon after the launch, State Board of Education began flagging taxpayer-funded purchases that fell outside the law — for items such as TV sets, clothes, smart watches and household cleaning items. Little ordered an audit in June.
The State Board’s in-house review — released in late June, about two weeks after Little ordered an audit — identified about $180,000 in improper purchases.
While the external audit cuts the bottom line significantly, auditors were working under a different set of rules. The State Board in October approved a series of changes in the program, allowing parents to use the grants for items such as educational camps, P.E. equipment and pay-to-play fees, musical instruments, backpacks and computer cases.
“(The changes) resulted in a substantial reduction of what otherwise would have been purchases identified as potentially being ‘incorrectly made,’” the audit says. “In other words, most of the potentially ‘ineligible education expenses’ were now ‘eligible.’”
The audit comes as Idahoans can apply for a new round of Empowering Parents grants. Families can receive up to $1,000 per child or $3,000 per household. Eligibility is based on income: Households earning $60,000 or less can apply in the first wave of grants.
So far, the state has received more than 22,000 student applications for this year’s grants, State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman said in Monday’s news release.
Federal coronavirus aid funded the first year of Empowering Parents, and the $50 million in grants that were subject to the audit. This year, Idaho is putting $30 million of state money into the grants.
It will be up to Little and the Legislature to decide whether to fund the program again after this year. The 2024 Legislature convenes on Jan. 8.