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The State Board of Educations review of an embattled educational grant program found that less than 1% of total purchases made under it were ineligible.
The internal review, released Friday afternoon, is separate from the independent review that Gov. Brad Little requested earlier this month; Little wrote to board of education leaders asking for a full financial audit of the Empowering Parents grant program over concerns that taxpayer funds may have gone to improper purchases, Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News reported.
The program provides $1,000 grants to families of Idaho students for specified educational expenses. The internal review concluded that approximately 0.57% of grant funds spent were deemed ineligible and will need to be reimbursed to the state, according to the report. The review also found an additional 8% of purchases needed more information to make a determination.
Grants have gone out to more than 49,000 students to date, the report said.
The grants are administered and spent through an online marketplace, created and run by the vendor Odyssey. During a State Board of Education meeting June 14, staff said they were able to immediately flag some clearly inappropriate purchases, such as cleaning supplies and smart watches, during its review.
Families who improperly used the grants will be notified, removed from the program and unable to participate in the future, Jenn Thompson, chief planning and policy officer for the board, said at the time.
There are also about 6% of purchases that state board of education staff will recommend to the programs Parent Advisory Council that they be added to the list of eligible purchases such as camps, classes, computer cases, physical education equipment, and uniforms.
Odyssey and the state board added new procedures to help improve accountability moving forward, according to a release. State Board of Education staff will review purchases within 72 hours, Odyssey implemented a punch out system for some vendors that will require staff approval before the purchase is finalized, vendors must agree to make only clearly eligible products and services available on the online marketplace, and parents will be required to submit documentation and attestation of the educational purpose of all purchases.
The program, which has been among Littles top priorities, first rolled out in 2022 using federal pandemic-relief funds to provide grants to eligible students for educational expenses, such as tutoring or technology. The Legislature made the program permanent during the 2023 session, allocating $30 million of state money toward it. Grants are $1,000 per student or up to $3,000 per family, and lower-income households are prioritized.
The launch and early implementation has faced a number of hurdles. In December 2022, many Idaho parents were frustrated by the slow pace of application reviews.
The budget bill to make the Empowering Parents grants permanent also faced an uphill battle in the Legislature, narrowly passing the House in the final days of the session.
Legislation was also introduced, but did not pass, that would have added to the program to allow tuition grants for private schools something Little has said he is against.
The Empowering Parents Advisory Council will discuss the review of purchases and how to move forward at its July 10 meeting in Twin Falls.
State Board of Education members and the governor have maintained strong support of the still-young program.
The State of Idaho and our vendor for the Empowering Parents grant program, Odyssey, have successfully distributed the vast majority of these important grants to Idaho families to improve educational outcomes for our students, State Board of Education President Linda Clark said in the release. The state and Odyssey share a goal of working together closely to continue administering this program with integrity and transparency, and we appreciate their partnership.
Little said in the release that the program has been tremendously successful. The independent audit that Little ordered will still move forward.
The review that took place over the past several weeks led to improved procedures that minimize the potential for misuse and add greater accountability of these public funds. I look forward to the results of the outside audit to ensure the greatest level of transparency within the program, Little said.
A full copy of the report is available online at boardofed.idaho.gov.
Guido covers Idaho politics for the Lewiston Tribune, Moscow-Pullman Daily News and Idaho Press of Nampa. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be found on Twitter @EyeOnBoiseGuido.
Dubious purchases were few
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