Of backpacks and ballet shoes: Parental group ponders an Empowering Parents gray area

TWIN FALLS — Idaho families have already bought 3,000 items, improperly, through the taxpayer-funded Empowering Parents education microgrant program.

And that doesn’t even count thousands of additional items that sit in a gray area of sorts — backpacks and computer accessories, camps and classes, uniforms and ballet shoes, and more.

Amy Henry of Nampa speaks during Monday’s parental advisory council meeting in Twin Falls Monday. State superintendent Debbie Critchfield sits to Henry’s immediate right.

Should taxpayer dollars cover these transactions? Could parents land on a blacklist because they have already received grants to pay for these items?

The 2022 Empowering Parents law is unclear. The state’s program guidelines are unclear as well.

It will be up to a seven-member Parental Advisory Council to sort through the answers.

Meeting on the College of Southern Idaho campus Monday, council members began their discussion, at starting points all across the spectrum. Some members argued for a wide-ranging list of eligible purchases, while other members argued for holding the line.

Nothing was settled. But the final outcome could affect thousands of Idaho households — in the future, and right now.

The 2023 Legislature put $30 million of state tax money into Empowering Parents, which made the program permanent. The advisory council’s recommendations, expected as early as September, will ultimately shape the future of the program, and determine what families can do with their share of microgrant money.

The council also has an immediate issue on its hands.

Since last fall, the state has used $50 million of federal coronavirus aid to start up Empowering Parents, serving more than 49,400 Idaho students. State officials tout the program as a vehicle to help working-class families cover their out-of-pocket education expenses, largely computers and learning materials.

But the launch has not been seamless, according to an internal State Board of Education review released on June 30.

About 1% of the purchases were ineligible, but taxpayers wound up paying for them anyway. That list takes in some 3,000 items, Heather Zeitlin, the State Board’s Empowering Parents coordinator, told council members Monday. The state’s contractor running the Empowering Parents program — New York-based Primary Class, known also as Odyssey — has agreed to reimburse the state about $180,000 to cover these transactions, for items such as TVs, smart watches and clothing.

From there, things get more complicated.

An additional 6% of Empowering Parents purchases might or might not be eligible for grants. Camps, computer cases and many other items fall into this far-ranging gray area. The State Board has asked the advisory council to decide whether taxpayers should foot the bill for any or all of these items.

Council member Jason Sevy, a Marsing school trustee, argued for paying for uniforms, saying low-income students in his community are less likely to sign up for activities such as cheerleading. Council member Amy Henry of Nampa, a former basketball coach, said districts routinely use fundraising drives to defray uniform costs.

Council member Barbara Schriber of Sandpoint said backpacks could be a difference-maker for local students — especially those who aren’t assigned a school locker. Others said they simply could not justify putting taxpayer money into backpacks. “At some point it just feels like we’re handing out money, so people can spend it,” said Joni Shepherd, a council member from Riggins.

And Courtney Abenroth, a council member from Rupert, clamored for some hard evidence about whether backpacks and other items help students do better in school. “We’re reacting emotionally to backpacks,” she said.

Eventually, the council could recommend against covering at least some of these purchases. If that happens, parents who received these grants could be banned from applying for more money in the future. While Odyssey agreed to reimburse the state $180,000 for the purchases already deemed ineligible, it’s not clear whether the state can demand money from a contractor receiving nearly $1.5 million to run this program through next year.

As the council faces some big decisions, it also has considerable discretion.

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield — the council’s nonvoting chairwoman — pointed the group back to the language in the 2022 law that created the Empowering Parents program, and established the parents’ council.

The law’s statement of purpose says the grant dollars should be used to address “learning loss,” and provide at-risk students resources “in addition to what is available during the school day.” The law also allows the State Board, and the council, to add “other education expenses and services” to the list of approved items.

In the end, the council’s job might have less to do with spotting fraud and pointing fingers, and more to do with focus.

“There are enough unanswered questions from just the statute itself,” Critchfield said in an interview after Monday’s meeting. “We have an opportunity, with ongoing money, to tighten that up. … The panel members, I think, have really come to the table with some very thoughtful questions.”

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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