Parental panel opposes using grants for private school tuition

An advisory committee does not want to expand the Empowering Parents program to include private school tuition and fees.

While nonbinding, Monday’s vote foreshadows a school choice debate that appears almost certain to resurface during the 2024 legislative session. The outcome of this debate could reshape Empowering Parents, a popular program that provides taxpayer-funded microgrants to cover out-of-pocket education costs.

So far, most of this money has paid for internet access, computing devices or classroom learning materials. And for much of the summer, a Parent Advisory Panel has looked at tweaks to the program — addressing the problems that have plagued the rollout, and looking for ways to give parents more options about how to spend their share of the money.

On Monday, the committee’s discussion revisited the private school tuition issue. And the committee’s deliberations mirrored this year’s Statehouse debate.

Nampa parent Amy Henry argued for expanding the program. A former public school teacher, Henry said she supports public education — but also said she pulled her daughter out of public school, fearing for her safety. Supporting private school tuition and fees is simply a matter of allowing taxpayers to decide how best to spend their money.

“It’s taxpayer dollars, it’s not public dollars,” Henry said.

Idaho Falls teacher Laura Milton and Marsing school trustee Jason Sevy argued against the idea — saying a tuition or fee credit amounts to nothing more than a tax voucher.

“This is not a voucher program, this is a grant program for families,” Milton said.

Panel member Holly Cook of Boise said an Empowering Parents microgrant — maybe $1,000 per student — won’t make much of a dent in private school costs.

Noting the 2023 Legislature’s impasse on the issue, Sandpoint parent Barbara Schriber urged the panel to stay in its lane. “It is not the role of seven parents to go over something that is up to the Legislature.”

In March, the Senate passed a bill to tack a $12 million tuition and fee program onto Empowering Parents — a pilot to provide 6,000 households grants of up to $2,000. The House Education Committee never took up the proposal.

The panel voted against recommending this expansion on a 4-2 vote, with one committee member absent.

And even before the Legislature weighs in on the tuition and fees idea, the State Board of Education gets the next word.

All of the committee’s recommendations go to the State Board, which will act in October.

During a wide-ranging three-hour meeting Monday, the panel took up a variety of recommendations:

  • On a split vote, the panel said the state should allow homeschooling parents to use microgrant money for education co-ops. Parents use these part-time co-ops to supplement their children’s homeschool education, Henry said, but the programs are often costly.
  • The panel voted to recommend several new purchases — covering educational camps and classes; backpacks, computer cases and other school supplies; and uniforms and pay-to-play athletic fees. Camps and classes have never been eligible for Empowering Parents money. But some of the other items have fallen into a gray area of sorts, since they weren’t mentioned in the program guidelines. The State Board asked the parents’ panel for recommendations on expanding the list of eligible purchases.
  • The panel recommended changes in the way parents can carve up their share of grant dollars. The current program allows grants of up to $1,000 per K-12 student, or $3,000 per household. The panel wants to give parents more flexibility for spending this money, but it was not immediately clear how the spending caps could change.
  • The panel also had some recommendations for Primary Class, or Odyssey, the state’s embattled Empowering Parents contractor. The panel said Odyssey needs to improve its communication with vendors on the online marketplace. The panel also wants Odyssey to set up a rating system, so parents can grade vendors.

The recommendations — and a likely school choice debate — come as Empowering Parents reaches a crossroads.

Originally funded with $50 million in federal COVID-19 aid, Empowering Parents will now receive $30 million a year in state funds. This spring, an internal State Board review spotted $180,000 in improper purchases — and thousands of other purchases that might or might not be proper. Gov. Brad Little has ordered a third-party audit.

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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