At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic Idaho launched the Strong Families, Strong Students program to offer an education lifeline for families and students stuck at home and in need of learning supports. Governor Brad Little provided grants directly to parents with an investment of $50 million in CARES Act Funding. The program resulted in more than 80,000 students applying; 29,000 in the first 24 hours.
The successful Strong Families, Strong Students program was followed up by the $30 million Empowering Parents grant program. Approved by the 2022 Legislature, that program covers grants of up to $1,000 per child or $3,000 per family. My organization, Bluum, supported both programs as they were developed and launched. We support the importance of empowering parents to take more control over their children’s learning and education.
All along the way we have worked to gauge the impact of these programs on families and children as reported by parents themselves. With support from the Filling the Gap Fund program administered by Bellwether and generously funded by the Walton Family Foundation Bluum engaged the education research firm FDR Group to survey Idaho parents that applied for Empower Parents grant support. The FDR Group conducted focus groups with parents across Idaho and conducted an online survey with 369 parents over January 17-26, 2023.
Key findings from the parent surveys include:
First, parents broadly believe that the Empowering Parents grant will help Idaho’s students in significant ways. Majorities say the grant funds will improve their own child’s learning and well-being—and improve student learning statewide.
- 81% think that their own child’s learning “will improve” as a result of the grant.
- 62% are “very confident” that their decisions about how to use the grant funds will make a real difference in their own child’s learning.
- 90% agree with the statement: “The resources and services I choose will help my child progress toward their learning goals.”
Second, large majorities believe they “are likely” to see the following improvements in their own child as a result of the way they choose to use their grant funds:
- 78% Less stress at home about sharing educational technology.
- 77% Even more enrichment in areas where child already excels 72% Catch-up in subjects that child struggles in.
- 67% Participation in extracurricular activities.
- 65% Better grades on classroom tests and assignments.
- 55% Stronger progress in overcoming a learning disability 54% Better scores on standardized tests.
- 53% Less anxiety about school.
Third, parents use the Empowering Parents grant for a variety of resources and services, with school supplies, computers/accessories, and instructional materials topping the list. A plurality believes that private school tuition should be an eligible purchase.
- 42% agree with the statement: “Parents should be allowed to use the grant funds for private school tuition” (20% disagree, 28% not sure, 9% not applicable).
Fourth, parents in North Idaho differ from parents in other parts of the state when it comes to homeschooling and were more likely to support using the Empowering Parents grant for private school tuition.
- 57% of North Idaho parents say they agree with the statement “Parents should be allowed to use the grant funds for private school tuition;” compared with 33% of parents in Eastern Idaho, 42% in Southwestern Idaho and 40% in South Central Idaho.
Fifth, parents believe that there are “too many parents” in Idaho who don’t know about the Empowering Parents grant even though they could benefit from it, and most say they have spread the word about the grant to other parents. They themselves first heard about the program via social media, news reports, and direct contact from people they know.
Sixth, many parents feel that the Empowering Parents online marketplace needs to improve. Their concerns center around a lack of vendors and long waits for approval.
Seventh, parents are generally satisfied with the process in place to apply for an Empowering Parents grant. But communication with parents needs serious improvement, according to almost half of those surveyed. Parents in South Central Idaho stand out in that they are more satisfied with how the grant is being administered—and more likely to be Hispanic—compared with parents in other regions.
In summary, as the legislature debates Senate Bill 1038, and potentially other bills that would allow private school choice using public dollars, both advocates and opponents should take lessons from the innovative Empowering Parents and Strong Families, Strong Students microgrant programs.
There are three interconnected issues to pay attention to in ongoing efforts to expand learning choices for families:
- Parent support for allowing public dollars to be used for private school tuition is real but not overwhelming. It could go away if programs to support these efforts are poorly administered. And parents understand the money is taxpayer dollars. One parent from Fruitland summed it up this way: “It is technically state money, which would go towards public schooling, but it is taxpayer money, and so if people think that a private education would be better for their children, whether it be academically or socially, I would think they should be able to have that prerogative to decide what would be best for their children.”
- For any expanded school choice program to be fair, effective and available for all interested Idaho families there needs to be a concerted and sustained effort to provide all eligible families with information about available opportunities and how to tap them. One parent from Nampa summed up the challenge facing parent awareness thusly, “I had talked to a couple of my friends, and they have more children than I do, and they haven’t heard about it (Empowering Parents). And I was really surprised. And one of my friends, she has a couple of special needs kids, and she didn’t hear about it.”
- Administering these sorts of microgrant/Education Savings Account programs are challenging for state agencies and vendors to administer and these challenges can frustrate the end-users – parents. A Boise parent shared that “I applied for the grant after stumbling upon it. I think I saw it online. I applied, and then I didn’t know what the status was for quite a while. It seemed like the period of time that had gone by was kind of long, and I should’ve kind of known. I eventually, I think I logged in and saw that my status was approved, but I hadn’t received communication yet, so it just left me with a lot of wondering what…kind of, “How does this work and unfold?”
As Idaho works to create an expanded school choice universe for families it is critical that parents have a voice in how these programs evolve and are modified over time. Parent input has never been more important to education policy. This is a good thing. Empowering Parents has done just that and all future programs should build on these early lessons.