Idaho parents frustrated by Empowering Parents grant program delays

Boise resident Shannon Orr and her three children are exactly the type of people the Idaho Legislature intended to help through the Empowering Parents Grant Program. She has been homeschooling her children for nearly three years, her family’s income is below $60,000 and she needed more educational materials for her lesson plans.

But nearly two months since she was approved for $3,000 in funding, or $1,000 per child, she has yet to see a dime, despite multiple attempts to contact the program administrators.

Orr has been homeschooling her three children, all of whom are under the age of 13, since 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted her to start homeschooling her kindergarten-age children, and she decided to include her oldest child as well after deciding the education that had been provided so far by her school district wasn’t adequate.

Orr applied for and received $3,500 in grant dollars from the Strong Families, Strong Students initiative, which was funded by $50 million from the first COVID stimulus bill signed by President Donald Trump, the CARES Act. The grants, which were also touted by Gov. Brad Little at the beginning of the legislative session, were meant to combat learning loss during the pandemic and make up for any gaps with items such as computers, tutoring services, internet connectivity and other needs that would help set students up for success.

The Strong Families grant helped Orr get her homeschool up and running, she said, and the process went smoothly.

With the Empowering Parents program, her account has sat unfunded since Oct. 7, her calls to the Idaho State Board of Education have been directed to a department that would ring unanswered without an answering machine, and anyone she does reach doesn’t seem to have a consistent answer for the delays.

Sen. Lori Den Hartog
In this file photo, Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Merdian, speaks at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Legislators who wrote bill establishing program intend to meet with state board this week

More than 81,000 Idaho students benefited from those grants before it ran out of funding.

Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, sponsored Senate Bill 1255 in early February to establish the program. She said at the time that 94% of the Strong Families grants went to children enrolled in Idaho public schools.

Empowering Parents was structured the same way, but used $50 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID relief bill signed by President Joe Biden, and allowed grants of up to $3,000. First priority would be given to families making less than $60,000 per year, then families earning up to $75,000 per year, and all other incomes if funding still remained.

Den Hartog told the Sun by phone on Monday that she and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, intend to meet with the State Board of Education this week to talk about any ways they can help move the process along. Aside from application delays, Den Hartog said she is aware of issues with bringing various eligible vendors into the Odyssey platform. 

“We were envisioning both public and private entities being on that platform, like schools with tutoring programs where parents could expend funds, individual teachers, things like that,” Den Hartog said. 

Based on her understanding, it has been difficult so far to recruit people like that, she said, and more efforts may be needed in terms of marketing the program to those who could benefit from it. 

“Everything has its own issues,” she said.

Less than half of 28,000 applications have been approved, state board says 

Mike Keckler, chief communications and legislative affairs officer for the Idaho State Board of Education, told the Idaho Capital Sun in an email that as of this week, out of the 28,041 grant requests, 12,875 — or close to 46% — have been approved. The department is planning to put the program on hold this week to pause new applications in an attempt to catch up.

Keckler acknowledged the process has been slower than anticipated, in part because of delays in verifying the applicants’ adjusted gross incomes and birth certificates of the qualifying children, which is a requirement of the statute that established the program.

Analysis: Idaho picks a fledgling firm to ship $50 million of education grants to parents

As of Nov. 30, $16.83 million in grant funds had been transferred to the vendor running the program, Odyssey, and $1.84 million had been sent to families who applied. Keckler said Odyssey is positioned to deposit $16.5 million into accounts by the end of the day on Friday, with the remaining funds to be distributed over the following two to four weeks.

Keckler also noted that application approvals have been slower than the Strong Families program because the vendor that administered that program — ClassWallet — subcontracted its application process to a separate vendor with a full team dedicated to processing applications. The company administering the Odyssey program was much cheaper, costing the state about $1.5 million versus $2.6 million, about $2.1 million of which was dedicated just to processing applications.

The first group of applications was not completed until early November, according to Keckler.

Moscow parent frustrated by cumbersome process 

Chris Riddlemoser, a network engineer at the University of Idaho, has a fourth grader and second grader enrolled at Moscow Charter School. He also applied for and received a grant under the Strong Families, Strong Students program for his daughters to do school activities at home, and he said it was an easy, quick process.

This time, he was approved for the $2,000 in early October, and he waited to receive the funds. As someone with a family income of less than $60,000, he expected to be among the first recipients.

“My account said ‘approved’ for like two months with no acknowledgement letter, no further updates other than saying, ‘Your account will take two to three weeks for review,’” Riddlemoser said. “That turned into nine weeks before anything actually happened.”

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After sending many emails asking what was going on, Riddlemoser said the funds were deposited into his account in late November, but now he has faced a new challenge of trying to get his purchases ordered through the Odyssey platform. He said the process is cumbersome, and he is still waiting to get the laptop he ordered for his daughter’s school activities.

“We’ve already made it through the first and second quarter of the Moscow School District calendar not having access to the stuff we were promised when this program launched,” he said. “It’s frustrating as a parent because what do you do? I’m letting my kid use my iPad, but that’s not ideal.”

Under the Strong Families program, grant recipients could submit receipts for reimbursement from their funds, Keckler said in an email. That was a pandemic-specific procedure, and this time around, no reimbursements are allowed. Orders must be made through Odyssey’s platform.

Riddlemoser said that’s a frustrating change as well because he would have the laptop by now if he could submit a receipt for reimbursement.

“I have no idea where any of our purchases are at, I just have the word of a help desk employee that said they placed an order and deducted funds out of my account,” he said.

Process is now picking up and should address backlog, spokesman says

Keckler said the frustration is understandable, but it should be resolved soon. Once applications are fully approved with verification from the Idaho State Tax Commission and the funds make their way through the bank, applicants should see their funds.

“The bottom line is that the process for funding the grants is now picking up, and hopefully this will begin to address the backlog of grant recipients who understandably are anxious to receive their grant funds,” Keckler said. “Not unlike the Strong Families, Strong Students program, this is a very complex program to administer, and it is taking longer than we had hoped to fully execute.”

Den Hartog said she’s hopeful that the issues can be resolved moving forward so that the money reaches its intended recipients. 

“The heart of the program is to make sure that kids and families have access to some resources they might not otherwise have had to meet their kids’ needs,” Den Hartog said. “All of this is solvable, but it can be a matter of time, and I hope we can solve it quickly.”


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